Old Time Kentucky: Remembering when state revelers welcomed the New Year by anvil firing

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By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

More than a few of our Kentucky forebears who sang “Silent Night” didn’t practice what they crooned.

They noisily welcomed Christmas by shooting fireworks and firearms. But the biggest booms came from anvil-firing.

Kentuckians forsook the custom long ago, possibly because it sometimes claimed lives and limbs.

Even so, blasting anvils was popular from Paducah to Pikeville, especially at Yuletide, Christmas, New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July. Revelers also fired anvils to celebrate election victories.

The festivities started when participants lugged a pair of matched anvils to a field or some other open space. They’d place one anvil atop the other one—the bottom anvil topside down; the top one right side up.

Anvils have little cavities or holes on their bottoms. So anvil blasters would pack black powder into the mated cavities, stick in a fuse, light it and stand back. It was said the ear-ringing, earth-shaking blast could be heard for miles (Photo Provided)

Anvils have little cavities or holes on their bottoms. So anvil blasters would pack black powder into the mated cavities, stick in a fuse, light it and stand back. It was said the ear-ringing, earth-shaking blast could be heard for miles (Photo Provided)

Anvils have little cavities or holes on their bottoms. So anvil blasters would pack black powder into the mated cavities, stick in a fuse, light it and stand back.

It was said the ear-ringing, earth-shaking blast could be heard for miles.

But such fun was fraught with peril. Sometimes anvils burst, killing and maiming shooters and spectators. Old Kentucky newspapers are filled with stories of anvil-firing tragedies. Readers got the gory details.

In 1888, Christmas was anything but merry for Robert Jordan’s Fleming County family. He was firing an anvil at Poplar Plains when two pounds of powder exploded, according to the Dec. 28 Maysville Evening Bulletin.

Jordan “was terribly mangled” and “can not survive,” the paper said.

On Christmas eve, 1895, anvil-shooter Ned Burdette, who lived near Hubble in Garrard County, was wounded, evidently fatally, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Christmas day.

“He was celebrating Christmas by firing a blacksmith anvil,” according to the Falls City paper. “One charge failed to explode promptly, and it went off while he was leaning over it.”

The blast tore off “his right hand and arm and part of his face and head.” Doctors didn’t expect the “well-known and popular young man” to live.

On New Year’s Day, the Richmond Climax published a slightly different version of what befell the youth. “He was pushing the powder into a hole in the anvil with a large rod of steel, and struck too hard, causing a spark to ignite the power and explode the anvil.” The paper also said Burdette would likely die.

An even worse anvil-firing mishap ended as many as four lives in Burkesville on the evening of Nov. 6, 1886. Local Republicans were whooping it up over Dr. W. Godfrey Hunter’s election to congress.

“Contrary to the advice and wishes of many of the citizens, they placed a couple of anvils in the Court-house yard, and commenced firing them,” the C-J informed its readers on Nov. 9.

The GOP faithful “had been indulging in this sport but about fifteen or twenty minutes, although begged to carry their anvils somewhere else, when one of the anvils burst.”

Chunks of iron flew in all directions. A fragment hit young Walter Haggard, who was watching from the doorway of Alexander’s drug store. It ripped away “all the right side of his head, and leaving only his left ear and a portion of his left jawbone, while his brains were scattered over the floor.”

Haggard died instantly.

Other flying debris tore legs from county jailer Jack Jones another man. Doctors believed both would perish, according to the C-J.

Too, “a young man named Huddleston, a son of the County Assessor,” had little chance to pull through after he was “struck in the side by a piece of the iron and dangerously wounded.”

None of the casualties were firing the anvils except Jones. The rally “was, of course, immediately terminated while the whole town was thrown into gloom,” the paper said.

Berry_Craig_Mug

Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of six books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, and, with Dieter Ullrich, Unconditional Unionist: The Hazardous Life of Lucian Anderson, Kentucky Congressman. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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