Wilderness Underfoot: The thorn inspires an invention, part 1

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The thorn, one of Nature’s most primitive inventions, helped inspire the human invention of barbed wire

Since the days when our ancestors first domesticated animals for meat, milk, hides and fur, one of the challenges has been keeping the creatures contained in grazing areas, and away from planted crops. In early times, this was usually achieved with walls or fences constructed with mud, stone, and wood.

But for 19th century American settlers, the difficulty of holding livestock with these traditional barriers became apparent as they built homesteads beyond the eastern woodlands, out on the open plains. Their herds of cattle required lots of roaming area to get an ample supply of grass for feeding. But on the prairie, building walls or fences to surround these large stretches of land was too costly and time-consuming. Wood was not readily available, and constructing mud or stone barriers was labor intensive.

A fencing method that gained favor on the Plains during the mid-1800s was the planting of the thorny Osage orange tree in long hedgerows. Using thorny plants for livestock barriers was an old and obvious solution – after all, the very purpose of thorn in nature was to stave off hungry or clumsy animals. It was an effective deterrent, as anybody who’s ever been jabbed knows too well. After a few good pokes, cattle avoided contact with the hedges, which were aggressively pruned to keep them bushy and prickly.

In those days, thousands of miles of hedgerows were planted by settlers on the Great Plains, making the Osage orange the most widely planted of all trees. An industry of growers emerged in the 1860s, supplying the saplings to ranchers. Planting and pruning wasn’t an ideal solution, but this method did the job.

It just so happened that another useful quality of the Osage orange was the wood’s ability to resist rot, even in damp soil. Osage logs, with bark intact, were widely used as posts for fencing. To save on wood rails, plain wire was sometimes employed, but it was hardly effective in stopping cattle. The animals simply rammed the wire until it snapped or fell loose.

To really solve the fencing problem, it would be necessary to find a way to surround vast open areas with a minimum of labor and materials. The solution would be cooked up by an inventor in DeKalb, Ill. And his recipe would be artificial thorns, wire, and long-lasting wood posts.

From the Aug. 3-9, 2005, issue

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