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History of the Barb Wire

Ellwood House Museum
509 North First Street
DeKalb, IL 60115

(815) 756-4609
(815) 756-4645

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History of Barb Wire

Fencing Frontiers: The Barbed Wire Story

It seems natural that the first practical barbed wire should have been perfected and manufactured at DeKalb. This small city, sixty miles west of Chicago, was located at the edge of the prairie, that vast treeless expanse where the need for fencing was most acute.

In 1873 Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish and Isaac Ellwood visited the DeKalb County Fair. Here they viewed an exhibit for a "wooden strip with metallic points" created by a farmer named Henry Rose. His device was nothing more than a strip of wood armed with nail-like spikes meant to be attached to a plain wire fence.

Glidden, Haish and Ellwood soon began to think about improvements to Rose’s crude invention and within two years each of the men had obtained his own patent. Joseph Glidden made his first barbed wire in the kitchen of his farmhouse, using a coffee mill to twist the barbs into shape. Working in his barn he then utilized a grindstone to twist two strands of wire together after placing the handmade barbs on one strand of the wire. After making several hundred feet of wire in this manner, he fenced his wife's vegetable garden to keep stray animals out.

Glidden applied for a patent in October 1873; however, it was not granted until November 24, 1874. Ellwood quickly recognized the superiority of Glidden's concept, and in July 1874 he purchased a one-half interest in Glidden’s yet-to-be issued patent for $265. DeKalb folklore relates that it was Mrs. Ellwood who saw the promise of Glidden’s wire.

Glidden and Ellwood soon formed a partnership called the Barb Fence Company and began the manufacture of barbed wire in DeKalb. In the first year of 1874 only 10,000 lbs. of barbed wire were produced, largely by hand.

The following year the company built its first factory with a steam engine and machines to mechanize the barbing of the wire. Output rose dramatically and in 1875 more than 600,000 lbs. were manufactured.

In 1876 Glidden sold the remaining interest in his patent to Washburn & Moen Co., the largest U.S. wire manufacturer, for $60,000 plus royalty rights. Backed by ample capital, the barbed wire business soon began to assume gigantic propor-tions. According to The DeKalb County Manufacturer, 2,840,000 lbs. of barbed wire were produced in 1876, 12,863,000 lbs. in 1877, 26,655,000 lbs. in 1878, and 50,337,000 lbs. in 1879.

To preserve their monopoly, Washburn & Moen and Isaac Ellwood & Company purchased the rights to many prior and subsequent patents related to barbed wire. Years of litigation followed between the holders of the Glidden patent and other patents over priority in the invention of the first practical barbed wire. In 1892, the United States Supreme Court awarded precedence to Joseph Glidden because of his original claim that the twisting of the two strands of wire holds the barbs in place. The Court declared: "In the law of patents, it is the last step that wins."

Before barbed wire could achieve widespread use throughout the West, it had to be accepted by ranchers and farmers. Sensing that Texas would be the largest single market for the new invention, Ellwood sent the team of Henry Sanborn and J.P. Warner to Houston in 1875 to promote and sell barbed wire. They found Texas seething with controversy between the free grassers, who wanted to maintain the open range, and the nesters, who advocated fields protected by fences. Even those who were in favor of fencing scoffed at the idea that a light-weight barbed wire fence could restrain the wild Texas Longhorn cattle. There was also concern that the sharp barbs would inflict wounds on cattle. If the cuts became infected, the cattle could become diseased and die.

Because of these controversies, Sanborn and Warner failed to sell much barbed wire. This situation changed when a 21-year-old sales-man named John W. Gates was hired by Ellwood. Arriving in Texas, Gates obtained permission to build a barbed wire corral in San Antonio's Military Plaza. He announced that he intended to demonstrate that this fence could contain even the most wild Texas longhorns and offered to take all bets on the outcome. Gates' bravado soon aroused the interest of many cattlemen. When the fenced enclosure was complete, he had wild Longhorn bulls driven into the corral. The animals, aroused by the taunts of the onlookers, were provoked repeatedly to charge the barbed wire. The fences held and Gates soon began to sell barbed wire to the cattlemen by the railcar load.

One of the first large markets for barbed wire was the railroads. As the lines moved west across the prairies, cattlemen and farmers were alarmed by the loss of their livestock on the unfenced tracks. In 1876, for example, the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad reported that 1,948 animals had been killed in the three states where it operated at a cost of about $25,000.

The introduction of barbed wire soon offered the railroads a relatively inexpensive way to fence their right of way. I.L. Ellwood and Company claimed in the 1880s that it furnished Glidden barbed wire fencing for "over 150 railroad companies—more than all other kinds combined." A beautiful advertising poster in the collection of the Ellwood House Museum vividly illustrates the use of barbed wire by the railroads.

In 1898 Isaac Ellwood helped establish the American Steel & Wire Company, a near monopoly which bought out wire makers large and small in an effort to control all wire production nationwide. At the head of this company was John W. Gates who had begun his career selling barbed wire in Texas. American Steel & Wire became a subsidiary of the U. S. Steel Corporation in 1901. The era of the wire mills in DeKalb ended in 1938 when production was moved to Waukegan and Joliet.

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in conjunction with the
DeKalb Park District

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509 N. First Street, DeKalb, Illinois 60115
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