The devil’s rope

In the middle part of the 19th century as more and more of the land was settled between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains the farmers faced a number of significant challenges.

Winters were colder than they were used to in the eastern United States, and summers were much hotter. Most supplies had to be brought in by train from distant cities. Lumber for building houses, plentiful in the east, was in short supply on the plains. The soil, while fertile, could only be reached by first breaking through an almost cement-like upper layer of sod. Finally some creative settlers figured out that the sod could be cut into blocks and repurposed for building houses, solving two problems at once.

A lot of ingenuity and creativity went into settling the Great Plains, especially when it came to addressing one of the most basic, yet frustrating, parts of life for the region’s cattle ranchers: the cows kept wandering off.

In the east, farmers had used stone walls, hedges or tree lines to mark the edge of their property, which also had the effect of keeping their livestock from getting out. Railroads used similar methods to keep cattle from wandering onto tracks. But stones, hedges and trees were hard to come by on the plains. Farmers and ranchers had to find some way of effectively marking the boundaries of their land and keeping their livestock in.

That something appeared compliments of an Illinois farmer who in 1873 received a patent for a fencing material known as barbed wire.

To be clear, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb did not invent barbed wire all by himself. He did, however, perfect a process that had been in development for several years and make the product widely available to the ranchers who needed it. Glidden was the man who took barbed wire from concept to practical reality.

Joseph Glidden
In the years after the Civil War, the beef industry boomed. Demand for beef rose in the United States and in Europe, and the invention of refrigerated rail cars made it possible for production to rise to meet the demand. The open ranges of the American west offered ample land and grazing grass for the cattle industry to expand. If only they could keep the cows from wandering off.

Westerners began experimenting with wire fences in the mid-19th century, finding it easier to obtain and emplace wire barriers strung between fence posts. Wire fences also did not cast shade onto crops, nor did they collect windblown snow into large snowbanks the way wooden or stone fences did. French designers improved upon the idea by using wire twisted into points, almost like a man-made thorn bush, which inflicted pain on cattle pushing against it to break free. In 1867 an Ohioan, Lucien Kent, received the first patent for something resembling barbed wire.

Other inventors came up with other designs, including one by Henry B. Rose, who sought to showcase his single-strand product by visiting county fairs. His tour brought him to the DeKalb County Fair in northern Illinois in 1873, where Glidden, a local farmer, had the chance to examine it.

Glidden, a former DeKalb County sheriff who had farmed in the county for 30 years, needed a solution to an unusual problem. His wife, Lucinda, had been speaking to him about the problems which livestock were causing when they would stroll onto the front yard of their house near DeKalb. Joseph sought a way to keep the animals off the lawn. When he saw Rose’s product, which was basically a wooden block with spikes in it, suspended from a wire between two fence posts, he got an idea.

He felt he could improve upon the design and make something both more durable and more affordable. He tinkered away at his idea, using his wife’s hairpins and his friend’s grindstone to explore different ideas. Finally, he hit on something that worked.

Glidden used a coffee mill to shape short strands of wire into sharp barbs, then used a second, coiled strand of wire to secure the barbs into place. This design proved to be both sturdier and easier to manufacture than the many other versions of the products then in circulation.

In October 1873 Glidden took his design to the U.S. Patent Office and a few months later he received his own patent for the revolutionary product. Partnering with a DeKalb hardware store owner named Isaac Ellwood, Glidden built a factory in DeKalb to produce barbed wire.

The product proved enormously popular, and enormously controversial.

Ranchers quickly embraced (metaphorically, of course) the new product, and by the end of the decade Glidden was producing and selling more than 80 million pounds of the wire. Others strenuously objected. Religious groups called the product “the devil’s rope” and recoiled at the injury that it caused to animals. Prairie free grazers protested that by fencing off grasslands the wire made it impossible for their herds to find grazing land. Texas ranchers who drove their cattle to railheads in Kansas for shipment to stockyards in Chicago feared that fencing in the prairie might make it impossible for their cattle to reach markets.

But these objections could not overcome the product’s popularity. One satisfied customer wrote that, “it takes no room, exhausts no soil, shades no vegetation, is proof against high winds, makes no snowdrifts and is both durable and cheap.”

One of the most effective demonstrations came in San Antonio in 1876 when John W. “Bet-a-Million” Gates showcased to area ranchers the effectiveness of barbed wire in restraining cattle. Glidden’s wire was an instant phenomenon. Railroad companies became some of the largest consumers of barbed wire as they found it could keep animals off their tracks and away from their speeding trains.

Barbed wire changed the American west almost overnight. It made it possible for small farmers to cheaply and efficiently protect their herds from wandering, or from theft, which made it cost-effective to maintain a small ranch on the plains. This in turn brought more entrepreneurs west, thus fencing off more land. The days of free-grazing and the cattle drive ended, and the plains states came to be largely settled by small farmers and ranchers.

Glidden’s rise was not without controversy, however. His design for barbed wire was far from the only one, and many of his competitors fought him every step of the way, including his DeKalb neighbor Jacob Haish who had patented his own version of the product. Their battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided in Glidden’s favor in 1892.

With his patent secure, Glidden became a millionaire. He licensed other companies throughout the nation to manufacture his design, while his original firm, the Glidden Barbed Wire company, eventually became part of the U.S. Steel conglomerate. When Glidden died in 1906 he gave 63 acres of his land to create the Northern Illinois State Normal School, which today is Northern Illinois University, our state’s second-largest university.

Glidden’s creation found a multitude of uses, and not all of them were as positive as protecting livestock from theft or from oncoming trains.

A decade after his death, desperate to find some way of defending large stretches of battlefronts in World War I, European armies reasoned that if Glidden’s wire could work on animals it might work on people too. Soon barbed wire became a fixture of the trenches on the western front. Throughout the war armies tried without success to find ways of cutting the wire during an attack, using everything from wire cutters to artillery. The only effective solution came near the end of the war with the invention of the tank, which simply rolled over the wire.

Over the following century, governments, farmers and private interests found a limitless number of uses for Glidden’s wire. All that came years after the death of the man who saw a product and thought he could improve upon it in order to keep cows from wandering into his front yard.

Joseph Glidden’s homestead in DeKalb County is preserved today as a monument to the Illinois farmer who created a simple product which changed the nation and the world.