The invention called the Devil’s rope

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By Barb Lumley

 Years ago, if the settlers wanted to build a corral or fence to confine their livestock the choice of materials was limited. They might use small trees, branches, hand-cut rails or pickets or even stones. In the western states livestock owned by ranchers could travel for miles over acres and acres of land and then would have to be rounded up before they could be sold. In 1874, Joseph Glidden, a son of English immigrants, laid the principal credit claim to the patent for barbed wire. The patent number was 157124.  

The first purpose of the wire was to keep animals in, not people out.  As time went on it would be used for both. Over the years it would come in many weights and strengths and with many designs of barbs. The American invention that is most traditionally placed to deter intruders from trespassing….and one which has spread worldwide since its invention in the mid-19th century….is barbed wire, the “devil’s rope”. 

Barbed wire had a huge effect on the beef industry. It made it possible to confine beef animals in the western states nearer the railroads thus making it easier to ship animals to the stockyards in the Midwest and then on to the eastern states. It made much more beef available to people, affected the prices for both buyers and sellers and changed peoples’ diets. 

In the “good ole days” in my area almost every farm had line fences. Fences were usually either barbed wire or woven wire with a strand of barbed wire on top. Each farm was expected to keep the fence built and repaired. Each neighbor took care of half the line. Most farms had livestock of some kind that pastured and had to be kept in place. Occasionally a bull would get a little “frisky” or a storm would cause a tree or branch to fall on the fence and repairs would be needed. Farmers kept an eye out for problems and often worked together making repairs.

On a warm day in early spring, as the ground was beginning to dry, my dad would get out the Oliver tractor and a small trailer and prepare to go check and repair line fencing. He had his special “fence toolbox” which contained his hatchet, steeple puller, canvas gloves, steeples, wire cutters, pliers and any other small tools needed. Into the trailer went the posthole digger (the kind operated by hand), shovel, spud bar, tamper, fence stretcher, extra steeples, a roll of barbed wire, hand saw and a chain (in case there was a tree down or branch that had to be moved).  After checking to be sure we hadn’t forgotten anything….especially food and water….we were off to check fences.

Our line fences went through several wooded areas and there were places we could not get to with the tractor and trailer. Dad would cut off a small roll of wire from the big roll, take his fence toolbox and the fence stretcher and hope if there was an area needing repairs it was a small one. One of the good things about fences in the woods was you could nail to the trees.  You might end up with a line fence not quite where it belonged but people didn’t worry too much about that in those days. The woods was filled with so many interesting things to see and learn about….wildlife, the different kinds of trees, flowers, weeds, bugs, insects and more! We did have one line fence where you had to walk all the way up a big hill to get to it. You crossed your fingers and hoped not much repair was needed, as you didn’t want to have to go back down and then carry the roll of barbed wire back up! We liked to check it last, as much of the wire would have already been used and the roll wouldn’t be so heavy! Times have changed and livestock is confined much differently today. Most of the old line fences on farms have rusted up or been torn down. The type of fences erected today are of much different materials and most of them are built by people doing that as their business. Barbed wire today is usually called “barbwire”.

Building and repairing fences was always hard work but those were enjoyable days spent helping my dad. They gave me many memories to treasure and a lot of knowledge about   fencing. If you find yourself in an area surrounded by barbed wire and you need to get out, keep looking for a gate.  Over the years barbed wire has left its mark on many a pair of jeans and the area they cover!

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