Barbed Wire Fences

The simple, yet effective, barbed wire fence was the inanimate object that won the West.

| December 2017

  • The same fence, exhibiting one of many strange “posts” added over the years as needed. Given the distance back to the ranch where replacement posts were available, any available upright was utilized to contain the livestock.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • New barbed wire comes in rolls. Almost all is galvanized, and some is advertised as “pre-stretched,” which makes building fence easier but complicates repair. When a break occurs, the wire retracts to its original un-stretched state, leaving a large gap.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • This old three-wire fence is held up with split cedar posts, once the posts of choice because of their resistance to deterioration. Steel posts have been substituted when repairs were needed. Close examination of the photo reveals that the wires have been spliced several times – understandably so, since the fence is at least 80 years old.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • Extensive displays of barbed wire can be found in Western museums and private collections. This display has 30 unique examples; the oldest are shown here.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives
  • An unusual sight: A bumblebee impaled on a barbed wire fence.
    Photo by Farm Collector archives

Ranching in the cowboy era of the late 1800's and early 1900's has become a fixture in American minds. There are literally thousands of books written about that phenomenon. It doesn’t seem to make much difference if the book is fiction or non-fiction, somewhere in its pages will be a statement like, “the (fill in the blank) won the West.”

You can insert the name of just about any kind of handgun or rifle into that statement. Historic events like the Homestead Act of 1862 and railroad expansion also complete the sentence, and make fairly accurate statements. 

However, it wasn’t until some method of keeping livestock located in one general area was developed that lasting settlement became a reality. The lowly barbed wire fence was the one thing that made that possible. The lives of those of us who live in the rural West have been influenced by barbed wire from the time we were small children. Even today, physical movement in the plains area and foothills of the mountains means regular encounters with a barbed wire fence.

Enter at your own risk

A barbed wire fence is a divider between two pieces of land made up of posts set into the ground at regular intervals with several strands of twisted wire fastened to each. Short, almost razor-sharp projections are positioned at regular intervals along the length of the wire. Because of the wire’s strength and the pain that results from contact with the barbs, it is difficult for any living thing larger than a rabbit to cross it.

Gates must be built to allow large animals to go from one piece of land to the next. If an average-size human is extremely careful, he or she can crawl under the bottom strand. Attempting to climb between two strands of a well maintained fence often results in pain in both the back and crotch. A good barbed wire fence comes pretty close to keeping out anything not wanted in a field, and keeping anything in that you don’t want out. The vast open spaces in much of America are divided by such fences.

Sharp memories remain clear

Should you accidentally come in contact with a fence in the dark, that memory will never fade. This author had such an experience as a teenager when playing hide-and-seek at our church youth group sponsor’s ranch. Unknown to me, a three-wire gate stretched across one of the entrance lanes – one we hadn’t used – that led to the ranch house from the main road.


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