Old West Lifestyle & Stories


Probably no other one invention changed the face of the west and the life of the cowboy more than the one applied for on October 27, 1873

A De Kalb, Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden submitted an application to the U.S. Patent Office for his design for a fencing wire with sharp barbs.

Glidden came up with his design after seeing an exhibit of single-stranded barbed wire at the De Kalb county fair.  But Glidden’s design improved on this wire by using two strands of wire twisted together to hold barbed spur wires firmly in place…Incidentally, Glidden used his wife’s coffee grinder to twist that first wire.

Glidden’s wire was also well suited to mass production techniques, and by 1880 more than 80 million pounds of inexpensive Glidden-style barbed wire was sold, making it the most popular wire in the nation.  Plains farmers quickly discovered that Glidden’s wire was the cheapest, strongest, and most durable way to fence their property.  As one person wrote, “it takes no room, exhausts no soil, shades no vegetation, is proof against high winds, makes no snowdrifts, and is both durable and cheap.”

The effect of this simple invention on the life in West was great.  Since the plains were largely treeless, a farmer who wanted to construct a fence had little choice but to buy expensive and bulky wooden rails shipped by train and wagon from distant forests.  Without barbed wire, few farmers would have attempted to homestead on the Great Plains, because they wouldn’t be able to protect their farms from grazing herds of cattle and sheep.

Barbed wire also brought an end to the era of the open-range cattle industry.  Within a few years, many ranchers discovered that homesteaders were fencing the open range where their cattle had once freely roamed, and that the old technique of driving cattle over miles of unfenced land to railheads in Dodge City or Abilene was no longer possible.  In addition, the ranchers fenced in their cattle, changing the cowboy’s job to riding and repairing fences.

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