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Competitors in the Traditional class — the anvil-on-anvil method Wilkinson demonstrated at the Mountain Man Rendezvous — routinely top 200 feet using a 100-pound anvil and a pound of gunpowder. In the Super Modified division, participants launch a single 100-pound anvil set atop a homemade mortar tube packed with two pounds of powder — enough to send the anvil soaring higher than 800 feet.
It is unclear who holds the record for peak anvil altitude. "The highest one I ever managed was 887 feet," asserts Jerry Hinton, a Laurel native and eight-time winner of his hometown competition. "But that was last year. I think I can it up get over 900 now."
"It's kind of like fish stories sometimes," cautions Columbia resident Mark Bollinger, a former champion in the Traditional division. "There's always somebody somewhere that may have gotten it up higher by adding more powder or using a lighter anvil."
Similarly, there are several theories as to how, when and where anvil shooting originated.
Anvils themselves are among the oldest tools utilized by mankind. Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back 6,000 years show anvils being used to shape metal. Anthropologists posit that their use predates humans, as chimpanzees have been observed using logs as anvils on which to crack nuts.
"The anvil is essentially just a surface," explains Richard Postman, a retired college professor who has authored three books on the history of anvils. "Anvil simply means something that is stationary that is struck by something else."
The earliest anvils were crafted from stone, evolving to bronze and later wrought iron. Today they come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their purpose and place of origin. A double-horned style is favored in continental Europe (and by Wile E. Coyote), while the single-horn type that came to prominence in Great Britain is standard in the United States.
There are dozens of anvil brands. The English-made Peter Wright is the most sought-after by collectors, while others, such as Arm & Hammer, bear familiar names. The Acme anvils made famous by the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were actually a generic line of anvils (and other products) sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co.
According to Postman, who spent fifteen years researching his 550-page tome Anvils in America, anvil use in this country peaked in the late nineteenth century, when blacksmiths played a critical role in society. As large-scale manufacturing was introduced and came to prominence, blacksmiths — and their anvils — became increasingly expendable.
"It's no coincidence that 'Smith' is such a common name," Postman points out. "Up until about 1930, everything from forks to sewing needles to axes to wagon wheels was made by a blacksmith. After that, people didn't go to the blacksmith. They went to the hardware store and bought the item new."
But when did folks start blasting their anvils skyward?
At the Mountain Man Rendezvous, Wilkinson tells the crowd that settlers on the American frontier used the report produced by packing black powder beneath an anvil to imitate cannon fire and ward off Indian attacks. Southerners, meanwhile, claim the practice evolved during the Civil War, when Union troops attempted to destroy Confederate weapon-making capabilities by blowing up every anvil they encountered.
Postman, though, says the practice dates back further, to the late 1700s: "It goes back to Revolutionary War times. They'd fire it mainly for noise: It really makes a bang for Fourth of July, Christmas — any holiday or celebration."
These days anvil shooting usually transpires at obscure community festivals. The Mountain Man Rendezvous has featured an anvil-shooting exhibition for nearly twenty years. Until recently the town of Millington, Tennessee, hosted a popular anvil-shooting contest at its Goat Days Festival. The contest in Laurel began at the Jones County Forestry and Wood Products Expo before moving to a private farm.
Despite their shared implement, anvil shooters and contemporary blacksmiths have not forged a common bond. About a decade ago, the Artists Blacksmith Association of North America, whose membership of 5,000-plus makes it the largest blacksmiths' group in the United States, banned the practice because of safety concerns.
"We lost a good six or seven hundred members because of that decision," says Rome Hutchings, president of the organization. "The board took action and disavowed several rogue chapters that continued that activity."
Hutchings can't recall a specific incident or injury that prompted his organization to outlaw anvil shooting, but he heatedly defends the policy. "It's dangerous," he says. "It's probably one of the more dangerous things that can be done. I've heard reports of anvils coming down on top of people's cars, anvils flying apart, near misses with human beings.
"It's really not a sensible thing to do with an anvil."
The sleepy streets of Farmington are lined with tidy yards and modest bungalows, making it easy to pick out the house that belongs to Gay Wilkinson.
It's the one with the fake anvil sticking out of the roof.
Located about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis off Highway 67, Farmington is home to approximately 13,000 citizens, a state prison and a mental hospital. It is also the undisputed anvil-shooting capital of Missouri, and in that regard Wilkinson is its unofficial ambassador.