Don’t Fence Me In

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As the frontier pushed west past Chicago in the 1840s, a problem appeared with the change from forest to prairie: the need for fencing. Farther east, wood for fencing was easy to come by, but the prairie was nearly treeless. The most common kind of fencing on the Illinois frontier was a large bush called the Osage orange. When horse-high, it acted as an effective barrier to larger animals and people, but tending it and keeping it in bounds was time-consuming. Walter Prescott Webb, in his classic, The Great Plains (1931) gives over almost the entirety of one chapter to the problem of fencing, something that could add more to the cost of a homestead than did land, buildings, and the like.

A potentially useful alternative, wire, was very expensive because of the relatively small-scale iron wire foundries in the country. As well, the iron wire that was available for fencing was often of poor quality. Iron requires considerable heating to remove impurities so that it does not bend or shatter. Steel is a better form of iron, and had been known for millennia. Until the 1850s, it could be made only in small batches and was hard to produce on a consistent basis.

Then, Henry Bessemer in England devised a process to produce large quantities of steel cheaply, and it began to replace iron. The Bessemer process came to America right after the Civil War, and before long the technology spread and made the fortunes of steel-makers such as Andrew Carnegie. The first big customers for steel were the railroads, which suffered from derailments and worse caused by cracked and broken iron rails. Iron rails had a life expectancy of two years; steel rails eighteen years.

On the treeless plains, farmers, ranchers, and a new wave of settlers attracted by the Homestead Act of 1862 raised the demand for cheap, effective fencing. Enter a group of Yankees. In 1867, Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, came up with a form of barbed wire, but it was seen as impractical. Then, in 1873, inventor Henry B. Rose, who lived near DeKalb, Illinois, came up with another type: a set of wooden blocks with sharp barbs sticking out of them strung along a wire. Seeing Rose’s effort at a DeKalb fair and thinking they could do better, in 1874 Joseph Glidden and his wife Lucinda Warne Glidden devised the kind of barbed wire in popular use today: two wire strands twisted so that sharp metal spiral barbs are held in place along its length.

Glidden worked with an entrepreneurial neighbor named Isaac L. Elwood, who bought a share of Glidden’s patent rights and sought out the Worcester, Massachusetts, firm of Washburn and Moen to produce the wire. Ichabod Washburn, the founder of Washburn and Moen, had invented a way to make piano wire, developed hoops for hoop skirts, and made many other improvements in wire manufacture. He died in 1869, and it was left to his son to develop the barbed wire industry. The Worcester Works became part of US Steel in 1901. Meanwhile, Washburn and Moen bought the rest of Glidden’s patent rights as the demand grew for barbed wire fencing. Elwood and Washburn then made an agreement to share the national market, Elwood’s share being the West.

Elwood hired Henry Sanborn as a salesman, and, with the help of his father-in-law, who lived in what is now the Amarillo, Texas, area, Sanborn successfully managed to introduce barbed wire to local ranchers, who were plagued with strays, rustlers, and the like.

In 1876, Elwood hired a relative of Mrs. Glidden’s, a flamboyant salesman named John Warne Gates, who was born in West Chicago and had done a stint in a Chicago business college. Elwood sent Gates to San Antonio to open southern Texas up to the joys of barbed wire. Meeting resistance there, he arranged to have the downtown square ringed with barbed wire and a herd of cattle driven in; the wire stopped them, much to the relief of the citizens — and, I suspect, Gates. The stunt was widely reported and the product caught on in Texas and then elsewhere.

In later years, Gates acquired a famous nickname. In England in 1900, Gates wagered $70,000 on a horse and won $600,000. His friends then started calling him “Bet-A-Million Gates,” which he claimed to resent, but he never corrected anyone.

There are two barbed wire museums you can visit; one in Kansas and one in Texas.

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