Coiled around fence posts, lying in junk piles and ditches, strands of farm and ranch history tell a story of the past. Barbed wire, with more designs than most people could imagine, shows great ingenuity and commercial competition from the 19th century.
First used in ranchers' attempts to control stock and wild animals, the sharp-pointed wire has been used in other ag applications as well. Those include operations with hogs that never give up trying to root under woven wire and board fences. Today, interest in barbed wire collecting remains keen with organizations, shows and a new reference book available for novices and veteran collectors.
The idea for the original barbed wire likely occurred just prior to 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, says collector John Mantz, Bakersfield, Calif. The Homestead Act allowed claimants of 160 acres of government land to establish a home and receive ownership after five years of residency and improvements.
But the problem of buffalo and free-grazing cattle destroying crops soon reached disastrous proportions, adds John (who's also executive director of the American Barb Wire Collectors Society). And the split rail and rock fences used on eastern farms were not available in the west.
In 1867, several individuals applied for patents on barbed wire fencing after smooth wire designs proved mostly ineffective. Alphonso Dabb, Lucian B. Smith and William D. Hunt are credited with starting the "Barbed Wire Boom."
"But none of their wires ever saw production," notes John, "with the only known patent specimen of Smith's invention being a series of small wooden blocks joined by short pieces of wire with sharpened nails protruding from each side of the blocks.
"In 1868, New York blacksmith Michael Kelly patented his 'Thorny Fence' wire, the first successful barbed wire produced," John says. "Interestingly, Frenchman Louis F. Jannin, working independently, had patented an almost identical wire in 1865. Their designs used a diamond-shape barb on two wires. But Kelly, after producing a million pounds of his 'Diamond Point', lost out due to faulty patent language."
John says Kelly patented other wire types, including his "Pin Wire," which today fetches a three-figure price for each 18-inch "stick." Other inventors - Judson, Jacob Haish, Rose, and Joseph Glidden - soon joined the fray and applied for patents. First made on modified coffee grinders (Glidden), grindstones and in home workshops (Kelly), barbed wire was soon produced on intricate machinery developed to greatly speed production.
But it was a pale forerunner of the product yet to come.
"Livestock raised behind pole corrals and on the open range tended to run through the slender strands of barbed wire as if nonexistent," John says. The result? The beginning of the "signal" or "obvious" wire era.
"To add visibility, for example, in 1876 Jayne and Hill used wooden blocks woven between two twisted lines and backed up by steel bars," he says. "Scutt's wooden block, with and without barbs, originated in 1880. Both wires are avidly sought by collectors, bringing about $150 and $10 respectively. O.P. Briggs added a metal plate to his design, which used two parallel wires, in 1882. Its collector's value is about $15."
Twisted and flat wires --sturdy and easy to see - were introduced in 1879 and 1881 by Jacob Brinkerhoff. "Brinks' flat was used in thousands of miles of fence. Considered 'common' by many collectors, it is valued at 25 cents per 'cut.'
"By the 1880s, hundreds of wires had been patented with an amazing number and variety of designs," John says. "One -Cline's Rail - has three parallel wires joined together and spaced apart by a two-point barb. Its value today is $5. Many wires such as Reynolds' 'Necktie' can be bought for around a dollar."
A new book, Barbed Wire Identification Encyclopedia by Harold L. Hagemeier, cross-references older guides, and contains history and information on identification and pricing.
Harold is a member of the Texas Barbed Wire Collectors Association, and John heads the American Barbed Wire Collectors Society. Between them, they can answer most collectors' questions.
Each man began collecting barbed wire in 1972: John as a working cowboy near Elko, Nev., and Harold during travels in Texas.
"I found some strange-looking barbed wire on the Ed Tomera ranch," John says, "and I later found it to be the first wire manufactured in the U.S., by Michael Kelly, in 1868. I also found other antique wires still in use on the ranch."
He researched the history of barbed wire, and developed mounting and display methods that simplified collecting and trading. Two of his thousands of "plaques" were given to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush as birthday presents, and one was displayed at the San Francisco International Airport, where it was seen by millions of travelers. John says collectors today number in the tens of thousands in dozens of states and overseas.
Harry encourages collectors to attend one of the dozens of barbed wire shows held annually in the west, southwest and Midwest.
"At each show," he says, "a collector usually displays his collection of wire, fencing tools or other collectibles, such as date nails and farm tools. Prizes are awarded for outstanding displays."
The collective experience at such events is invaluable to the novice.
"The best way for a collector to get started is to get acquainted with a long-time collector," he says, "and wire shows are a natural place to meet them. Old-timers will help in every way possible."
If you're a new collector, you'll find that wire turns up surprisingly often. "You can find wire by walking fence rows and other areas, and by trading with other collectors," Harold says.
And a starter collection shouldn't break the bank.
"My favorite piece of wire is the Spur Rowel," Harold says, "and it has several variations. My book shows a trend value of about $6 per 18-inch piece. A few scarcer types have a trend value of up to around $300. There are over 100 wires that can be obtained for less than $5 per piece. Some are as cheap as 25 cents. Prices have been fairly stable over the last 10 to 15 years, but occasionally a new and rare wire is found, and the price is usually pretty expensive."
Collections consist of wire cut in exhibition-length pieces. Initially, collectors of wire presented specimens in 18-inch lengths. But short wires – four to five inches long – are becoming increasingly common. Harold collects short wires, and mounts them on panels in cases.
"I changed to short wire," he says, "because you can get many more wires on fewer panels, and they're easier to handle."
Harold is the curator of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. The museum contains more than 3,000 wires, 750 fencing tools and extensive ranching history in its library. FC
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.