I’ve always loved museums on obscure subjects because they teach you how overlooked objects can have a big influence. Barbed wire is one of those objects.
While various inventors started experimenting with barbed wire in the 1850s, the founder of barbed wire is generally considered to be Joseph Glidden, whose 1873 design soon stretched across the American West. Before then, it was nearly impossible to enclose the vast rangelands of the West. There were constant fights over whose animals were on whose land. With the advent of barbed wire, land became enclosed, and the fights turned to passage rights and boundary disputes.
It’s often said barbed wire tamed the Old West, and while that’s true it also led to its demise. The West became more organized; freedom of movement suffered, and bigger and bigger ranches began to enclose huge swaths of land. Barbed wire was a boon to some and a curse to others. Many called it “the Devil’s rope” or “the Devil’s hatband.”
There are three major museums devoted to this humble but important invention. The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead & Historical Center in DeKalb, Illinois, is devoted to the inventor of barbed wire and his carefully restored home, barn and blacksmith shop. The museum has a blacksmith who gives live demonstrations of his traditional craft including, of course, wire making.
%Gallery-155001%The Devil’s Rope Museum on Route 66 in McLean, Texas, has a huge collection of barbed wire. The original design inspired countless variants and supposed improvements. Also, thefts of barbed wire led manufacturers to design specific wires for large companies and ranches. Hundreds of these variants are on display, as well as art created from barbed wire and a room devoted to the history of Route 66.
Over in LaCrosse, Kansas, there’s the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, which has more than 2,000 varieties of wire as well as wire-making tools and displays of barbed wire being used in peace and at war. It’s the headquarters of the Antique Barbed Wire Society, one of several societies of collectors and historians. Yes, there are collectors for everything, and with so many variants of wire and so much history for each one, the hobby has attracted some devoted followers.
Lots of historical societies and pioneer museums have small displays of barbed wire, so the next time you pass one on the highway, stop by and check it out. Just remember: look, but don’t touch!
[Image courtesy Coyote Grafix via flickr]