History of Barb Wire
Navarro County, Texas


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A History of Barb Wire
by Tom Mitchell
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", 1967
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

The term fence is taken from the work defense.   The first fences were not to contain, but to detain.  Farmers simply wanted to keep the pesky hogs or cattle out of their crops.  In the southeast, lumber was sufficient for fencing; in New England, rocks became the fencing material; in Texas; nothing.  The barren prairie lands, later to become fertile farm lands, offered no fencing material.  As a result, materials had to be imported.  In part of Texas, thorny hedges were constructed by planting Bois d'arc or osage orange seeds.  One firm in Gainesville in 1862 offered Bois d'arc seeds for sale at $5.00/lb. or $25.00/bushel, saying they would grow a fence "high as a horse, tough as a bull, and close as a hog."  Several attempts were made at using plain wire, but with little success.  The first patented all-metal barb wire in the United States, later known as Nelly's "Thorny Fence" was approved in 1866.  It was made by A. T. Kelly of Peoria, Illinois, for personal use, although some of it was commercially produced after the patent was purchased by a wire concern.  Several pieces of it have been found northeast of Dresden in Navarro County.

The real story of barb wire begins by considering three men at the De Kalb County Fair in De Kalb, Illinois, on September 23, 1873.   The tree men it seems, by chance or fate, all stood observing an exhibit by one Hank Rose.  The exhibit displayed a board plank some eight feet in length in which there were driven numerous spikes.  This then, was one of the several early attempts to reinforce or arm fences against the constant surge of livestock.  As the tree men stood looking at the exhibit, each made a mental picture, as each could see a way to improve the contraption to meet his own needs.  Of the three men, Jacob Haish was a lumberman, Isaac Elwood was a hardware merchant, and Joseph Glidden was a farmer.   The records don't say whether the three actually discussed what they planned to do.   In any case, each returned to his home and immediately began working with imagination and ideas.

Accounts say that approximately two weeks after the fair, Joseph Glidden, while in town for supplies, made the statement that he "had finally found a fence that would keep those dad-ratted hogs out of the garden."   It seemed that he had simply twisted small pieces of wire cut to a point around an already present strand of plain wire.  This first attempt was not too good, however, because the barbs slid up and down the wire readily.  His second attempt then, which was later to make him rich, was simply to twist another strand around the first, already containing the barbs, thus holding the barbs in place as well as reinforcing the wire.   Several sources stated that he modified a grindstone to do the twisting.  One source even states that his wife did the twisting while he attached additional barbs.   In any case, on October 27, 1873, Glidden applied for a patent on his "barbed fence" which was to become one of the most widely used fencing wires in Texas.

Isaac Elwood had heard of Glidden's fence so on one Sunday afternoon while he and his wife were out for a casual buggy ride, they chanced to pass by the Glidden Farm.  After stopping and looking at Glidden's fence, it is said that Elwood's wife made the statement that Glidden's wire looked easier to produce than her husband's.  Elwood, at first mad, later agreed; the next day he approached Glidden to discuss a partnership.  This they formed, Elwood paying Glidden $100.00 puls $165.00 royalty costs for interest in his patent.  They then began the commercial manufacturing of barb wire under the name "The Barb Fence Company."   The barb wire was the first made in Glidden's smoke shed, and Elwood sold it at his hardware store.

Jacob Haish, shortly after heard of the merger of the two, and this infuriated him.  In retaliation, he brought an injunction against Glidden's patent.  As a result, the first patent to be sold widely was not approved until July of 1874.  This, as was hoped, gave Haish time to apply for a patent on his own "S" barb and to start his own company.

From these events, then, the barb wire industry spread rapidly.  The time was right; there was a growing need for the wire; and there was suddenly competitive commerce as well as financial backing for the product.

The Washburn and Moen Wire Manufacturing Company, a concern in Philadelphia, had long been producing plain wire.  When Charles Washburn heard of the newly formed barb wire company, he went to Illinois to see it.  Glidden, by then, was tiring of the wire business.  He was a farmer, not a business man.   Washburn, in 1876, bought out the interests of Glidden for $60,000 plus royality on the barbed wire sold by the newly emerged company of Washburn, Moen, and Elwood.  In two years Glidden had become a rich man.

In 1876, the Washburn and Moen Wire Company, after seeing the now increasing Texas cattle industry booming, hired one Henry Sanborn to go to Texas in order to promote barb wire sales.  Texas, so stated, was a "raw land of raw people."  There Sanborn found two conflicting groups of people.  One was the "nesters", or farmers.  The other was the cattleman, or "free-grassers."  Sanborn, along with being a Yankee and disliked in this respect by many, was caught in the middle of the two conflicting groups.  One month was enough; Sanborn returned to Illinois to quit.

Texas sales of barb wire were finally promoted by one John Gates.  Gates, at age 21, was a gambler and salesman.  Washburn offered Gates a substantial commission on sales of barb wire in Texas; Gates accepted.  One month later, late in 1876, Gates arrived in San Antonio, the heart of cattle country.   There he constructed a large corral of barb wire.  After completion, he offered the wire-dubious public $10.00 per cow for anyone having cattle wild enough to break through the fence.  Several accounts follow, but in general, it is agreed that there were approximately 35-40 head of cattle in the corral when the demonstration was held.  It was said that after agitation of the catle by several cowhands, lunge after lunge by the cattle insued, but the corral held.  Thereafter, Texas barb wire sales bloomed.  One account follows, as recalled by Mr. H. R. Richardson of Austin.   It is related to the uploading of a box car of wire at the Richardson Store in Mexia.

The box car had been at the depot for two days, but my father couldn't find anyone who knew how to or would unload the car.  When Gates arrived he and my father built a chute and slid the wire on to the ramp.  They then got some help.  I remember one roll of wire sliding down the ramp, and it nearly tore the boot off of an on-looking cowboy.  The did get it unloaded.  My father only made five cents a pound for the wire, but he began to sell a lot of it.

In 1875, the Washburn and Moen Wire Company had sold 10,000 lbs. of barb wire.  In 1880, it sold 50,800,000 lbs in Texas alone.    Barb wire, then, had come to Texas.  The above company sold so much of Glidden's wire that it later became known as the "winner," and was copied various names, one even being called Corsicana Clip.

A great variety of these old wires can be found in Navarro County, still standing on a fence.  Quite often they are lying on the ground along side an incidental and occasional cedar fence post, the last an indication of an outdated cross-fence.

 


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