I hate seeing fences dividing open land, but at least around here, many of them are old and artful, twisted by hand before barbed wire was mass made by machines.
Barbed wire, also known as thorny fence and the Devil’s rope, consists of two strands of zinc-coated steel wire with sharp barbs twisted every four to eight inches along its length. The strands do horrible tearing things to hide so animals keep their distance, even cows, which are notoriously disrespectful of fences.
On my road trips, I have been to at least two different barbed wire museums: the Barbed Wire Museum in La Crosse, Kansas and the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma. These museums are about more than just fencing; the history of barbed wire closely parallels the settling of the West.
Wire fences began appearing in the Plains in the 1850’s but cows would routinely lean on the wire until it loosened enough they could escape. The first barbed wire is credited to a rancher named Michael Kelly in 1863, but he failed to market his invention and in 1874, Joseph Glidden was awarded the first patent for barbed wire that could be mass produced using a hand turned crank.
Glidden’s invention, nicknamed simply “The Winner” established him as the “Father of Barbed Wire” and made him one of the richest men in America. More than 2,000 different types of wire fencing were invented and marketed in the mid to late 1800’s by ranchers and entrepreneurs looking to create a more effective, more efficient wire fence, but despite upwards of 530 competing barbed wire patents, Glidden’s original thorny fence still dominated the West.
Around here, there are generally two types of barbed wire fences: old and new. The old fences, built in the mid to late 1800’s are almost all constructed from wire hand-twisted around old juniper branches and logs. Hand twisted wire is uneven and often spliced and knotted. Sometimes I even find snarls of single stranded wire left behind from fence making:
Whenever I find lengths of wire like this, I pick them up and secure them to a nearby fence, where they’ll be less likely to ensnare a passing animal. I really hate barbed wire. It’s nasty stuff and can be really dangerous for people, dogs, livestock and wild animals. Don’t mess with the Devil’s Rope!