Honoring the Wire That Won the West
In the Hollywood version of the Old West, it was the rip-snorting, gun-toting cowboys who tamed the wild frontier. In reality, it was barbed wire, more than brawn and bullets, that made the difference.
Just ask those who see barbed wire as something more than fencing. As there are collectors of stamps and butterflies, so are there those who collect strands of the so-called “devil’s rope.”
“It’s what tamed everything west of the Mississippi. The movies give credit to John Wayne and the repeating rifle, but we didn’t need either,” said Mike McCafferty of Oakley, who has some 850 varieties of barbed wire in his collection.
Brad Penka, president of the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Assn., agreed that the thin, prickly wire was the barrier between stampedes and settlements.
“When farmers started putting fences around their cultivated fields, it brought an end to the open range, and that didn’t sit well with a lot of ranchers,” Penka said.
“It got pretty nasty. There were some battles fought over it, and people were killed in some cases because of it,” he added.
McCafferty agreed, adding with a smile, “They deeply resented homesteaders legally stealing what they had stolen from the Indians.”
For those living in this part of the world, barbed wire has a heritage that rates its own museum in this town of 1,600.
The museum, started in a main street storefront in 1971, moved to larger quarters near the town park in 1991. Penka said the museum has more than 2,000 varieties of barbed wire on display, much of it from a single donated collection.
But Penka said the museum, which his group operates, always is looking for other types of barbed wire that might be around.
“Once in a great while something new comes up. We don’t have it all,” he said.
The museum has row upon row of barbed wire lengths, each with its own name and the year it was patented: the 1874 Seven-Strand Cable, the 1884 Kinked Line, the 1883 Crossover Barb and the 1887 Spur Rowel.
The museum and an annual gathering of collectors in May have given La Crosse the nickname of the “Barbed Wire Capital of the World.” Even so, the museum is not unique.
The Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, is considered “our sister museum,” Penka said.
Lee Shank, one of the Kansas museum managers, recalled the hard work that went into stringing barbed wire as a youngster decades ago. Every spring, sections of fencing had to be repaired and tightened from the winter snow drifts.
“It’s not easy. You wear gloves and you still get snags. It’s one chore I never enjoyed doing,” Shank said.
The museum also has examples of barbed wire from around the world, and one unique exhibit--a 72-pound nest built by crows from pieces of discarded wire. It was found in the 1960s in Greeley County close to a railroad track.
“The crows kept coming back every year and just added to it,” Shank said.
How many types of barbed wire exist is an educated guess at best. Penka said more than 2,000 variations have been cataloged, including about 500 patented versions that often differed only slightly by a twist or turn.
The first patented barbed wire in the United States was the Kelly wire in 1868.
But the first successfully mass-produced barbed wire in this country was by Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Ill., who fought years of legal battles over his 1874 patent.
He became known as the “Father of Barbed Wire.”
Glidden’s version--the Winner--became one of the most practical with barbs along a twisted double strand.
“The simplicity was the key thing. It was able to be produced in a relatively inexpensive way,” Penka said. “That’s what settlers liked about it; they could afford it.”
The design is still in use today.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.