David Baker will go to almost any length to add to his anvil collection.
"I went to this one sale where an anvil was advertised," he said. "I got there, and didn't see one. Finally, the auctioneer said 'The anvil is at the bottom of the cistern.' All you could see was a horn sticking out."
David sized up the situation: 45 feet down, and a 300-lb. chunk of iron. He passed. But that's the only time in 40 years of collecting that he's walked away from a blacksmithing tool without putting up a fight for it.
He's lugged home some 200 anvils, weighing between 100 and 1,400 pounds, from farm sales and pawn shops. He's bought even more tongs and "hardies," the chisels that fit into the square holes on anvils. He houses the collection in what he calls his blacksmith museum: two buildings beside his farmhouse in Wentworth, Mo. He enjoys showing off the collection to interested folks, but doesn't keep regular hours.
David's love for blacksmithing was, uh, forged when he was 17, working for a local smith.
"He paid me 15 cents to turn the forge," David recalled. "Sometimes, I'd turn it fast; sometimes slow, depending on how hot he wanted the metal."
A friend gave him his first anvil. He bought the second, and, voila, a collection was born.
"By now, I know my anvils," he said. "I can stand 20 feet away, and tell whether it's a good anvil or not."
Most of the anvils in his collection were manufactured from 1880 to 1900. They're all solid cast iron with a steel-cast face. Top U.S. manufacturers included Hay-Budden, Trenton, Fisher and Columbian Hardware Co. Other companies, such as Keen Kutter, stamped their names on anvils manufactured by others.
David's most valuable anvil is a 1,400-lb. Wilkinson from England. He believes it to be the largest anvil owned by a U.S. collector. The largest one catalogued in Anvils in America, a comprehensive guide written by Richard Postman, weighed in at 900 pounds. Postman interviewed David for the book, and cites him as being among the leading collectors in the country.
The 1,400-pounder was spotted by a friend, a furniture dealer, while on a buying trip to England. A Las Vegas casino owner had planned to buy the anvil to use as a display piece, but David beat him to it, matched the price offered, and paid the freight to boot. (He also paid the cost of having the anvil hauled to his farm by a wrecker.)
With his forefinger and thumb, David plinks one of the anvils and listens to its ring.
"The higher the tone of the steel," he said, "the better the anvil."
When he first started collecting, David said, almost every farmer and farm sale had an anvil. Now, though, the once common item has become scarce and expensive. If he's lucky, he says, he pays $2 a pound, but usually they go for much more. Early in his collecting, he sold a 750-lb. anvil for $1,000, then decided he wanted it back. Later, though, $2,000 couldn't touch it.
The bigger the anvils, the harder they are to find, David said, since the larger ones were custom made. Most anvils average 100 to 150 pounds. The weight is stamped on every anvil, although sometimes the stamp is worn away. History like that is quickly fading, he said. "The automobile killed the anvil," David said. "Most blacksmith shops closed in the 1920s, because blacksmiths weren't needed to make horseshoes and wagon wheels. Then, during World War II, the government bought anvils as scrap and melted them down. Anvils were of no value."
Today, of course, they are of tremendous value to the collector. David logs as much history as he can about each tool he buys. Included in his collection are cone-shaped anvils, used by wagon makers, and tools called "travelers," used for measuring wagon wheels. He also has a 150-Ib. swage block, used to make bolts and the bend in springs used on wagon wheels.
On the farm, David fires up the forge and uses his anvils and forge to repair equipment and hammer out horseshoes.
He's enjoyed the ring of horseshoes even longer than the ring of anvils. At 13, he entered his first horseshoe pitching tournament after being coached by his father, Frank Baker, and a friend, Raymond Carver. Five years later, David won his first state championship. He's won 15 state titles since then, and placed fifth in the world competition. In 1988, he was inducted into the Missouri Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame.
He doesn't compete much anymore, though. Today, David gets a bigger kick out of scouting the countryside for the tools that helped shape those horseshoes. FC
Marti Attoun is a freelance writer from Joplin, Mo.