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The Devil's Rope — Summer 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Museum credits barbed wire for helping to settle the West

By David Frey
Photography by Jeff Cooper

In a modest metal building in LaCrosse, KS, a unique museum offers a tribute to an unassuming invention that changed the face of the Great Plains and tamed the Wild West.

Some call it the Devil's Rope, but at the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, this simple innovation gets the credit it's due.

The museum exhibits about 2,400 varieties of barbed wire. Each strand is unique, from ornamental varieties to dress up a drab ranch fence, to razor-sharp concertina wire, to a stunning array of variations on the theme collected from farms and ranches across the country.

"When people first come into the museum, a lot of people say they don't understand why you would have a museum about something like that, about barbed wire," says Brad Penka, museum director.

Some come in out of real interest. Some come in out of road-trip curiosity. They leave with a sense of how barbed wire helped settle an expanding America.

Back East, most fences were built of wood or stone. But on the sweeping prairies of the Great Plains, trees didn't grow and the ground didn't have the same ready supply of stone. Settlers needed something inexpensive to fence cattle in — or out — as they carved out an existence on the land.

"When people were first coming out to this part of the country to settle, they were pretty destitute," Penka says.

Then Joseph Glidden had an idea. Eying an exhibit at the 1873 county fair in DeKalb, Ill., a spiked wooden fence rail meant to keep animals from breaking through, he decided he could improve on the idea by attaching the spikes to the fence itself.

He wasn't alone. Legend has it, two rivals had the same idea at the same time. Glidden won out, joining with one to form the Barb Fence Co., and doing battle with the other in courtrooms all the way to the Supreme Court.

Promoters called the new fence "cheaper than dirt, stronger than steel," and they hit the road with a show that proved even longhorn cattle terrified by torches couldn't break the new fence. Settlers bought it by the mile.

Each strand displayed in the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum is unique, from ornamental varieties to razor-sharp concertina wire — all collected from farms and ranches across the country.

"It transformed the area," Penka says. "It was cheap to produce. It was cheap to buy. It was easy to transport. You could throw it onto a wagon or throw it onto a train. And it worked well."

 

Since then, more than 500 patents have been filed for rival designs. Thousands of other designs were never patented. Two-point barbs. Four-point barbs. Some had sharp stars or diamond shapes. Barbed wire left the farm for the battlefield, serving in every war since the Spanish-American War.

 

The myriad of designs, some surprisingly attractive, have attracted a following of collectors, several of whom came together to create the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum back in 1971. The collection grew and grew, needing a much larger space two decades later.

 

Just when it seemed like the most ardent collectors were dying off, the Internet gave new life to the hobby of collecting these strands of a growing nation's history.

 

A lot of visitors think it's a gimmick at first, Penka says. "Then they realize there's such a history to it."

 

David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, CO.