by Maggie Brendan
Throughout the years before 1874, farmers and ranchers looked for ways to fence in their livestock and crops. Some even tried thorny hedges, but that took too many years to grow. A prosperous farmer, Joseph Glidden, was at a county fair in Illinois and came across a fencing product held together with strips of wood and sharpened wire. Before then, smooth galvanized wire was used for fencing but it never contained the cattle.
Glidden went home with an idea that would change history, the landscape and literally the face of the West. He used his wife’s coffee mill and refashioned the casting and altered the grinder, then twisted wire around two pronged points and made what is called barbed wire. He applied for a patent and after nearly a year it was granted. Soon, nearly 750 others quickly followed with barbed-wire patents and after a three year legal battle against them, Glidden won.
To make matters worse, it was protested by religious groups and animal rights activists who gave barbed wire the nickname, The Devil’s Rope, because once the cattle came in contact with the wire it caused injuries. To his dismay, it seemed the idea would bite the dust before it got off the ground. Free-range grazers and cattlemen driving steers to the market argued that it would end their access to grazing lands and trails. Not to be deterred, Glidden hired a salesman, John Gates, to take his product to Texas to convince the ranchers of its benefits.
The cattlemen of Texas scoffed at the idea saying the product wouldn’t contain the ornery Longhorns, and they weren’t buying it. The resourceful salesman went to San Antonio, built a corral and challenged the ranchers to bring their meanest steers to test it out. He said, “The cow hasn’t been born that can run through my fence!” Happy to prove him wrong, they did just that. At first when the steers came in contact with the fence they simply turned the other way. Every time they came back to the fence, it pricked their hide. Soon, the steers just milled around inside the corral.
Word spread and within four years, barbed wire arrived by trainloads. By 1880, 80 million pounds were sold and shipped to Texas by railroad. When the large XIT began stringing up the wire around their boundaries, barbed wire was considered a success, giving barbed wire the stamp of approval as a viable product.
The barbed wire changed the routine of the cowboy. Now he repaired fences instead of riding the property line looking for strays.
My critique partner, Kelly, gave me a string of barbed wire that adorns my bookshelf. Although it’s not the real thing, it looks real enough, though we do own various pieces of real barbed wire somewhere out in the garage. Maybe this would be a good time to mount it for a conversation piece.