Farm Collector

A Short History of Barbed Wire

A little-remembered fact in the history of barbed wire is that the infamous “fence cutters” weren’t the only people who hated it. Everyone making, handling, shipping, and storing barbed
wire dreaded contact with its needle-sharp points. The final
purchasers, farmers and ranchers, also hated the wire because they
were being forced to install fences to control their livestock or
protect their crops, usually against their will.

Railroad employees feared the prickly rolls would damage other
freight, and required the first rolls to be enclosed inside a
wooden barrel for shipment, in effect doubling freight costs. The
sale, shipment and use of barbed wire was a learning experience for
all concerned but, in the end, the new product was an effective,
economical alternative to all other fencing materials.

Manufacturers tried to limit the weight of each roll to 100
pounds or less, knowing that usually only one depot agent, freight
hauler, or store clerk would attend loading and unloading along the
way. Common sense dictated that the wire be rolled onto wooden
spools, a solution that minimized weight and cost. A hole was bored
in the spool’s center, allowing retailers to slip spools onto a
horizontal bar for easy unrolling.

As land was constantly being settled and sold, and boundaries
changed, wire fences were sometimes dismantled, and the wire rolled
and re-used at another location. A common joke of the time came
when two old-timers were talking. “I first learned to cuss while
unrolling barbed wire,” one would say. “I first learned to cuss
while trying to unroll wire rolled up by someone who didn’t know
how,” the other lamented. Both men told the truth.

Soon after barbed wire spools became common, people began
designing tools to make the unrolling job easier. Patent experts
tell us more than 2,000 tools and devices were patented before 1935
for use in carrying, unrolling, building, or repairing barbed wire fences. Such tools are
still being created and revised today for that same use. Collectors sometimes
mistake spool carriers for blacksmith tongs. The simple spool
un-roller looks like a broken lawn mower handle, but actually works
beautifully, pulling the spool along the ground as it unrolls with
almost no effort. Each is more than 100 years old.

Another old-timer explained the use of barbed wire simply. “This
may be the only universally used product that is hated by man and
beast, yet without doubt was and is 100 percent successful in
everyday use.” FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and
supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas.

  • Published on May 1, 2006
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