The winners' enclosure: Barbed wire won the west for America's farmers. Now collectors will pay up to dollars 20 an inch for it, says John Windsor

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The Independent Online
Having failed to find any collectors of barbed wire in this country, I am laying claim to being the first. My supplier is Barbed Wire John, a former cowhand of Bakersfield, California. He is one of America's biggest dealers in collectable barbed wire, which he offers in regulation 18in 'sticks' to the country's 30,000 collectors - none of whom has managed to trace all 1,207 patterns known to have been designed.

As a collector, I can tell you that if you do not understand barbed wire, you do not understand America. Limeys wonder what all the fuss is about when they watch the riot that follows Oklahoma's song and dance 'The Farmer and the Cowman (should be friends)'. But American audiences still feel a pang for pioneering ancestors shot in the 1880s 'fence wars' as the western plains were settled. Gunfights broke out between drovers and sod-busting farmers struggling to enclose their 160 acres claimed under the Homestead Act. Settlers, lacking timber, rock or hedges, made fences of wire.

Dust-ups between settlers and nomads, or city dwellers and barbarian hordes, date from the beginnings of civilisation. A few reels of Kelly's Diamond Point 'thorny fence', the first successful American barbed wire of 1868, time- warped into, say, Mesopotamia, would have changed the course of Western culture. In Texas, a bastion of Western culture, wire-cutting is still a felony carrying five years' imprisonment.

Enthusiasts at America's barbed-wire fairs and four museums need no prompting to tell you that the invention of barbed wire was more important than that of the windmill, steam engine, Winchester 73, light bulb, Model T Ford and aeroplane - and that it made the tank a necessity in the First World War.

I wanted a stick of the most famous, the wire that won the west: the Winner, patented on 24 November 1874 by Joseph Glidden, of Illinois, a schoolmaster turned farmer. This two-strand wire, twisted to lock the barbs in position, sold in vast quantities, so it is still a cheap collectable at 10 cents a stick.

Before production was mechanised, Glidden made the Winner with the help of a boy who climbed a tree carrying two strands of wire, the ends of which were attached to Glidden's wife's coffee grinder. The boy threaded barbs down the wires - which Glidden twisted by turning the grinding wheel.

He sold his share in his wire company prematurely. The market for the new product had yet to encounter John Gates, the company's brash, hard-drinking, gambling salesman. (He was later known as 'bet a million' Gates because he lost dollars 1m betting on raindrops sliding down a railway-carriage window.) In 1876, when he was only 21, the company gave him the concession for Texas, the 'Don't fence me in' state which was far from hooked on barbed wire, especially if touted by northerners.

Gates pulled off an audacious sales stunt. He announced a rodeo in San Antonio, made a corral with eight strands of the Winner and bet local ranchers they could not drive their steers out of it. On the night of the wager, Gates and his men repeatedly stampeded the steers, 75 of the most ornery, with flaming torches and gunfire; but the wire held. A single fence post broke.

Gates then invited the bemused ranchers to the local hotel, filled them with liquor bought from his winnings and gave the captive audience a pitch that sold 200 reels, the entire contents of a railroad car. 'Finest fence in the world. Light as air. Stronger than whisky. Cheaper than dirt. All steel and miles long. The cattle ain't born that can get through it.'

Too true. Some states banned barbed wire after the winters of 1885-86 and 1886-87 when thousands of cattle, icicles dangling from their muzzles, were crushed, starved and frozen to death as their trek south to escape blizzards was blocked by barbed wire erected to stop them reaching Texas. Owners found snow-covered mounds of dead cattle stretching 400 yards back from the wire, with only horns showing.

Barbed wire was also blamed for killing cattle by inflicting wounds that became infected with screw-worm. But it took only a generation for livestock to learn to recognise the wire and steer clear of it. In a single year, 1875 (the year before Gates's famous stampede), sales in America increased from 600,000lb to 2,840,000lb. As sales rose, prices fell: from dollars 20 down to dollars 1.80 a hundredweight between 1874 and 1897.

After the 1870s, barbed wire became part of American heritage. Railroad companies were devoted to it (cattle, prevented by barbed wire from crossing tracks, had to be transported by train). Pork-barrel mythologisers gave it folklore appeal by nicknaming it 'the Devil's rope' and inventing adages such as 'a barbed-wire fence gotta be horse high, bull strong and pig tight'.

The remaining arguments were to do with patents. And arguments there were. To aggressive chancers such as Gates, a better barbed wire was the Wild West's equivalent of a better mousetrap. There were fortunes to be made. But only under the protection of the patent laws. The pioneers of barbed wire became entangled in litigation that lasted for years.

That is why the later rather than the earlier designs have become the most expensive collectables. The vast number of patents granted (756 between 1868 and 1900) effectively prohibited the unlicensed manufacture of all but eccentric, expensive and uncommercial designs, which quickly ceased production, becoming rare and valuable. Prices can hit dollars 400 a stick.

The inventor of the first American barbed wire, Michael Kelly, a New York blacksmith, lost a fortune because of careless patent drafting. The patent for his Diamond Point of 1868, America's first two-strand barbed wire, omitted to say that the purpose of the second strand was to retain the position of the barb: a sharp, diamond-shaped metal plate.

It was Joseph Glidden who exploited the loophole. His Winner is, in principle, Kelly's. However, instead of a diamond barb, there is a twist of wire barbed at both ends. Kelly suffered the indignity of having to pay Glidden licence money. But he patented other wires. His Pin Wire, also 1868, with waisted barbs gripped by the twists, is worth dollars 150 a stick.

Glidden was among three pioneer barbed-wire inventors in De Kalb, Illinois, who each applied for patents within four months of one another, having spotted a barbed device to stop cattle leaning on fence posts displayed at the 1873 county fair. The others were Isaac Ellwood, a shrewd trader in nails, wire and farm supplies and Jacob Haish, a vociferous 6ft 6in lumber merchant of German extraction.

Glidden and Ellwood set up a trading partnership. Haish, who had begun making his own wire, issued 'interference' papers against Glidden. The litigation dragged on for seven years until Haish was defeated in the Supreme Court.

Later, after Glidden had sold his half- share, the company bought up patents and dominated the market - only to face a trade war cooked up by its own star salesman, 'bet a million' Gates. Sore at being refused a partnership, he teamed up with the disgruntled Haish and began manufacturing in defiance of patents.

Whenever the company served injunctions, Gates moonlighted his machinery in a barge across the Mississippi, the state border. Gates, Haish and other independents were eventually run to ground by a court ruling that all two- strand barbed wire was based on Glidden's principle. Damages and back royalties bankrupted many. But Haish and the ever-resourceful Gates did a deal, selling Glidden's old company a patent for barbed-wire machinery for a sum equal to the royalties owed. Gates rejoined the company and died a rich man.

Will barbed-wire collectors become rich? According to Barbed Wire John, although some prices in the 25 cent to dollars 5 range have doubled in the past couple of years, more than 600 wires still fetch no more than dollars 10 a stick. The most valuable, Rose's Wooden Rail of 1873, scarce because most of it has rotted away, is the only one sold by the inch, at dollars 20.

Publicity given to dollars 350 wires often results in collectors unearthing whole reels, sending the price tumbling. Kelly's Diamond Point, the first but (like the penny black) reasonably plentiful, is a mere 25 cents a stick.

Highly sought-after at dollars 300 a stick is Dodge's Rowel of 1881, as are all 'rowels' or star-shaped barbs. Hodge's Spur Rowel of 1887 is an investment prospect, up from dollars 3 to dollars 4 in the past couple of years. It could reach dollars 20 within months.

The first American wire - without barbs - is Meriwether's undulating wire of 1853, a sleeper at dollars 5. The first barbed wire is not American but French: Louis Francois Jannin patented a wire just like Kelly's three years before him in 1865.

Remember that, next time you watch culturally correct range-war westerns such as The Range Feud (1931), Range Defenders (1937), The Range Busters (1940), Range Justice (1948), Range Land (1949), Range Law (1931, 1944) and especially Shane (1953).

John Mantz (Barbed Wire John), 1023 Baldwin Road, Bakersfield, California 93304.

(Photograph omitted)

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