Granny and The Anvil of Doom

Anvils have never been easy to scrounge, and they’re getting harder by the year. The scarcity of decent anvils leads to a number of interesting stories behind the adventures of acquiring them.

All I really wanted (originally) was one decent 200 pound anvil for blacksmithing.
Stands to reason that my current total is 4, with several more I’ve sold off along the way.
One forty pound jewelry anvil, a 110 pound Peter Wright that I surface ground to a 5 micron polish, again for goldsmithing, (hard enough to have held that surface for 10 years.). A generic 175 pounder that I do use for blacksmithing...
...and Mongo. The Anvil of Doom™.

Mongo is, near as I can tell, an 1860’s vintage railroad anvil. No makers marks anywhere on him. Mongo is also three feet long, with a table that measures 22.5 by 5.5 inches, and he weighs in at somewhere between 350 and 400 pounds. The hardie is 1.5” square. Big enough to swallow standard hardie tooling. A bit on the impractical side, no? Mongo was one of the founding members of my collection of absurdly heavy objects, and one of my few tools with a name. He was wonderful to have around when I was doing a lot of swordsmithing. Absolutely great for straightening blades.

Moving Mongo is no fun, but the story of buying Mongo was pretty entertaining.

First, a little history.
The main market for anvils, back when there was much of a market for anvils, was small-to-midsize blacksmithing shops. Even in big shops, one doesn’t tend to share anvils between smiths at the same time. There wasn’t a whole lot of call for anvils much larger than 200-250 pounds. So they were never very common. Couple that with the hassle of moving/shipping a huge anvil in an age before modern roads and decent transport, and there really weren’t all that many of them made. Add on top of that two world wars worth of scrap iron drives, and what few there were have become scarce indeed. When I first started on my ‘quest for anvil’ a good rule of thumb was that a decent anvil should cost around fifty cents per pound. (That’s now apparently gone somewhere north of 2 dollars or more per pound.) With the proviso that the bigger they got, the more they cost per pound, regardless of condition, and anything bigger than 300 pounds would go for whatever was asked of it. By conventional wisdom, most of the really big anvils were one of two things: either bases for steam hammers (and those look funny), or railroad anvils. Railroads had mobile blacksmithing shops in railcars that they could shuttle around to wherever they needed them, either at the construction front to assist with laying new track, or to repair sites. Since these shops were permanently mounted on railcars, there was no concern about having to move their gear. Railroads also tended to have their own iron foundries, so they could make anvils of whatever size they wanted. The total lack of maker’s marks on Mongo leads me to suspect that he’s a railroad anvil: whoever made him knew who they were, and nobody else (except me) would ever care. The other reason that railroads liked big anvils was that the one thing that they’re better for is straightening, things like bent shafts, or warped rails. For that sort of work, a bigger flat surface is far better.

It’s the summer of 1989, and all I want is one decent 200 pound anvil. The only anvil I had at the time was the little 40 pound jeweler’s anvil that I’d picked up from Andy Holly, the blacksmith I’d apprenticed to the previous year. He’d been using it as the shop mascot. Thought it was ‘cute’. This from a guy who claimed (believably) to have been the inspiration for ‘Haggar the Horrible’. (I once watched him move a 55 gallon drum of coke by belly-hugging and walking off with it.)
My father’s family was from rural Appalachia. Eastern Kentucky, in the hills outside Paintsville to be precise. Not all that far from the real Hazard County. Paintsville is the county seat, and was then a town of about 4,300 people, of whom I suspect I’m related to about...most. The family’s been in the area for at least 11 generations that my genealogist aunt can find. My father having died the previous winter, I went down to Kentucky that summer to spend a few weeks with my grandmother, ‘Granny’. My thirst for an anvil being all consuming, I asked Granny to spread the word among her friends that I was looking for one. Rural areas being one of the best places to scrounge for anvils. Yea and verily, the word went forth. And lo, the word was returned: if we hiied ourselves to the swapmeet at the Paintsville stockyards on the weekend, there was a man who had spent the past month hauling some monster anvil in and out of there every weekend trying to sell it. “Oh really?” said I, chuckling evilly. The weekend came, and we went.

The swapmeet at the stockyards was about what you’d expect from a tiny town in the middle of coal country during a coal slump. A little of everything, and not much pavement. It was a grey, rainy day, with the sky spitting every so often. The stockyards were muddy, and there weren’t all that many people willing to trudge through the mud. Perfect for my schemes....

Granny and I walked around the swapmeet, looking at this and that, very carefully avoiding the pickup truck with the blacksmithing gear and other miscellaneous tools. We swung by it briefly so that I could examine the anvil, which I did while appearing to finger the odds-and-ends of heavy equipment fittings. Anvil having been examined and found worthy, we moved back off and set phase two of our plan into operation. We knew from Granny’s friend that he really only had two things I was interested in: the anvil, and an old forge blower of indeterminate age. (It turned out to be a Champion 400 still on its stand.) He had been asking $300 for the anvil the previous weekend, with the blower an unknown. What I did know was that I had grown up in ‘the north’ (read: Ohio and England).
The instant I opened my mouth, and he heard my accent, the price would shoot equally far north, to a level I couldn’t possibly afford. Thus out of desperation, a cunning plan was born: apparently on our way out, we would stop by the truck again, and my small, white haired, and very local Granny would allow as how this anvil reminded her of her ‘dear departed blacksmith husband’(he was neither)...and his gear had all been sold off after he died, so maybe this was even his, and she sure would fancy something to remember him by after all these years.... You get the idea.
My role in all of this was to play the ‘northern grandson’: “Granny, where are we going to put this? How are we going to get it into the house? Wouldn’t you like this nice little hammer instead??” and on in that vein.
Strangely, every time I opened my mouth, instead of going up, the price went down. This went on for several rounds of dickering. It was everything I could do to stay in character, and not break up laughing. It had started raining again, so that helped.
We finally settled with him after he spontaneously threw in the forge blower at a price slightly lower than what he’d been asking for the anvil the previous weekend. (Making sure I didn’t get shafted was one thing, highway robbery was another.) I think he just wanted to be shut of the thing, and not have to load it up again in the rain. Although he did help me find a board to reinforce the floor of my minivan, and load the anvil. It was everything both of us could do to lift it into the back. All the while Granny was standing there with her eyes twinkling.
Once we were finally loaded, and back on the road down into town, I ended up having to pull over for a few minutes; I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t see to drive, and she wasn’t in much better shape.

Definitely one of my favorite memories, both of Granny, and of anvil scrounging. My other set of grandparents figure into the scrounging of another anvil, and another story. That’s for another day, but the general drift is about the time I tried to fly home with an anvil as checked baggage...