The First Mr. America
by Dennis Mitchell
Over the years there have been many physique contests, some of which even had the title of Mr. America. The first official Mr. America contest was sanctioned by the AAU, and was held in conjunction with the 1939 Senior National Weightlifting Championships, July 4, 1939, in Chicago Ill.
Roland Essmaker was born March 24, 1916 in Richmond, Indiana. These were difficult times in America. His mother died during the flu epidemic in 1919. Roland and his brother Alvin were living in St. Vincent’s orphanage while his father was in Davenport, Iowa studying to become a Chiropractor. About three years later he opened an office in Richmond Indiana and brought Roland and his brother back to live with him. Times were still hard, and Chiropractic was new and not generally accepted. Roland and his brother helped by selling newspapers. In 1933 Roland went to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government work force, where he received food and clothing and lived in army type barracks. He received $5.00 a month, and $25.00 a month was sent to his father.
It was about this time that Roland became interested in body building from reading Bernarr Macfadden’s magazine, Physical Culture, and Bob Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine. The cheapest set of barbells advertised, was a 205 pound Milo set that cost $10.00. This was more than he could afford. With the information he got from reading the magazines he put together his own body building course. Using window sash weights and other scrap from a local junk yard he worked out. Later he obtained mail order courses from Earl Liederman and Lionel Strongfort. His gains were slow as he trained with his home made equipment and saved his money to buy a real barbell set. He now had a job as a sign painter and was making $6.00 a week, working six days a week. From there he went to work at a bus body manufacturer. He was now making abut $40.00 a week and was supplementing his workouts by lifting sections of the bus part before they were assembled. Roland later met a body builder named Paul Hamilton. They pooled together their equipment and worked out together for several years. Their workouts were mostly body building with a little olympic lifting added one day a week.
In June of 1939 Roland entered the Indiana State weightlifting championships which were held at Fred Hofmeistor’s gym. Roland said, “To put it mildly, my lifts were not outstanding”. It was Fred who convinced him to enter the Mr. America contest. All the contestants in the Mr. America contest also had to compete in the weightlifting. Third place in physique went to Herbert Marquardt, second place to Tony Terlazzzo. Roland, who was an unknown, was completely surprised when he took first place, and became the first official Mr. America. Winning the contest opened up other opportunities for him. He worked as a model for both artists and sculptures, and worked at Walt Disney’s studios. He auditioned for an adagio act and was selected, and went on tour. In 1941 Roland went into the Army Medical Corp and became a surgical technician. While home on leave he met Virginia Stanley. They were married Oct. 31, 1942. They had two daughters and in 1946 moved to California where he opened a gym. He later sold it to George Redpath. Roland did enter a few more physique contests but there was no information on how he did. In 1950 he went to radio and broadcasting school and became a radio newscaster and disc jockey. Next he became a journeyman multi color printing pressman. After retiring he and his wife moved into a house in San Marcos, California, that he and his wife had literally built with their own hands. I could not find anything about his measurements or how much he could lift, only that he could chin himself three times with either hand. Roland died October 3, 2002