Wilderness Underfoot: The thorn inspires an invention, part 2

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112369558810350.jpg’, ”, ‘Wire and thorns – Glidden’s barbed wire designs and a sprig of Osage orange.’);

Joseph Glidden was a teacher and farmer in DeKalb, Ill. In 1873, Glidden, and his associates, Jacob Haish and Isaac Ellwood attended a special demonstration at the DeKalb County Fair. On display was a crude wooden slat with small metal spikes, which could be attached to a wire fence to deter cattle.

Plain wire fencing had proven to be unreliable for containing cattle. Adding the prickly wood slats would allow wire fencing to replace thorny Osage orange barriers without the problem of cattle ramming it down. The three associates were inspired by the idea, and they set about looking for a more practical way to put prongs onto wire. No doubt they were knowledgeable about how the Osage orange was used on the plains. Haish owned a lumber yard that sold the seed.

Ultimately, Glidden had the best barbed wire design, and he applied for patents. At the same time, many other inventors, including Haish, were making patent claims with their own barbed wire designs. A three-year patent battle ended with the courts recognizing Glidden as the inventor of barbed wire. In partnership with Ellwood, he created the Barb Fence Company of DeKalb.

Inventing the wire was easier than selling it – at least in the beginning. Many ranchers and homesteaders thought it would fail just as plain wire had failed. Some people thought it would leave cattle severely scarred and prone to dangerous infections. Barbed wire was referred to as “Devil’s rope” by some religious groups who protested its use.

Meanwhile, a conflict was brewing in Texas and other parts of the West between “free rangers” who wanted lands left open so they could drive their cattle into Kansas markets, and land owners who wanted to protect their crops and their own herds. Barbed wire fencing landed in the center of this controversy. The two sides battled, often violently. At one point, special laws were enacted making it a crime to destroy fencing.

With all these issues churning, it took several years and clever salesmanship for the barbed wire revolution to get started. By setting up a demonstration pen, Glidden’s salesman was able to show that cattle could be contained with the new fencing. Out West, the tide eventually turned in favor of those who wanted fencing, and Glidden’s big break came when railroads contracted for barbed wire to keep cattle out of the right of way.

The barbed wire industry in DeKalb ended in 1938, after production was

moved to Waukegan and Joliet.

From the Aug. 10-16, 2005, issue

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