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The gregarious 58-year-old was born and reared in the town and elected mayor in 1993. His proudest accomplishment during his four-year term was building the municipal rec center, which bears an anvil-shaped plaque engraved with his name. "Being mayor is kind of how I got involved in [anvil shooting]," he says. "I could shoot 'em off pretty much anywhere I wanted in the city."
Wilkinson says he learned about anvil shooting in 1994, from an elderly local impresario named Tom Sawyer Nichols. The venerable Nichols was, according to Wilkinson, "a real colorful guy in town," known for launching anvils to celebrate the Fourth of July and other holidays. Wilkinson became acquainted with Nichols while shopping at a local gun store, where the latter had posted an ad offering to sell several pounds of gunpowder. Wilkinson, the proud owner of an antique cannon, a mortar and a collection of assorted handguns, was curious as to why the old guy had explosives on hand.
"I asked my gun shop-owner friend, 'Does he shoot handguns or black-powder rifles or what?'" Wilkinson recalls. "He said, 'No, he shoots anvils.' I was like, 'Whoa!' I'd heard of if before, but I didn't know how it worked or what it really was."
Wilkinson called and inquired about a lesson in anvil shooting. Nichols obliged and the pair soon struck up a friendship. The relationship was short-lived. Nichols passed away a few months after meeting Wilkinson — but not before making a last request of his new pupil: that Wilkinson fire anvils at his funeral.
"Mr. Nichols would say all these great things, like, 'Anvils are like our civil liberties: You can pound on 'em all you want, but they're resilient,'" Wilkinson recalls, adding, "If I'd have known he was gonna croak, I'd have recorded it all."
It's fair to say that Gay Wilkinson is now anvil obsessed. His garage is lined with dozens of the objects, in every size, color, material and brand. He scours the Internet, estate sales and antique stores seeking to expand his collection. His prize is a massive, 450-pound antique anvil that he plans to use as his tombstone. A display in his home is filled with tiny anvils he carved by hand from wood, soapstone and ivory.
"I see anvils in everything," he confesses. "My wife has just about had it up to here with it. She says I have anvils on the brain."
He has no interest in blacksmithing and says he enjoys the tools purely for their aesthetic value. "The old ones are all hand forged," Wilkinson says reverently. "So no two are alike."
Which is not to suggest that Wilkinson's just another hick with an odd hobby. A respiratory therapist, he heads the respiratory-care department at Mineral Area Regional Hospital, where he has worked for the past 41 years.
"It's such a spectacular thing," Wilkinson says of his passion for anvil shooting. "When you're physically separating two things with a force like that — it's quite a cataclysmic event. You can feel it, hear it, see it and smell it. It's quite a sensory experience."
He mainly shoots anvils on special occasions (next scheduled launch: his daughter's wedding) and at paid appearances, such as the Mountain Man Rendezvous. He passes out business cards that read: "Have anvils, will travel."
Beginning in 1996 Wilkinson and his close friend, fellow Farmington native Mark Bollinger, traveled to Mississippi to compete in the National Anvil Shooting Contest. In his fifth year at the contest, Wilkinson won the Traditional division with a blast of 224 feet.
He hasn't been back since.
Each year Gay Wilkinson gives an anvil-shooting demonstration to a group of fourth graders at Farmington Elementary School, as part of the school's Pioneer Days festival.
One year Noel Barton and his son Dakota were in the audience. Impressed by the spectacle, the father and son wanted to try their hand at the hobby.
"I seen it, and I practically begged the man to teach me," Barton says with a thick Missouri drawl. "He said, 'I don't want to do it.' So I went to the source. I had a little old woman teach me how to shoot, named Ms. Martha Nichols."
If that surname doesn't ring a bell, it ought to: Martha Nichols is none other than the widow of Wilkinson's former mentor, Tom Sawyer Nichols.
"Mrs. Nichols might have told him about it," Wilkinson scoffs. "But he learned it from watching me do it at the Pioneer Days."
The Barton family soon acquired a set of anvils and immersed themselves in the hobby. The father-son duo began entering (and winning) anvil-shooting competitions, calling themselves "Team Thunder." The elder Barton even got a tattoo on his forearm depicting an anvil with an explosion underneath it and flames coming off the top.
"We'd seen it done, talked to some people and decided it was for us," says eighteen-year-old Dakota Barton. "We're big historian people. We thought we'd keep it alive — keep the history of it moving along."
Wilkinson says he quickly came to the conclusion that he wanted nothing to do with the Bartons. When he heard they were planning a trip to Mississippi to compete in the national contest, he e-mailed a heads-up to that effect to Mike "Shine" Stringer, the event's cofounder. "I never heard back," Wilkinson says. "I figured they hit it off real good, and I was the turd in the punch bowl."