Volume II, No. 2, Winter 1974

Barbed Wire

By Steve Hardcastle

Interview by Gina Hilton, Steve Hardcastle and Susan Thames

Photography by Stephen Hough. Drawings by Nancy Honssinger

Barbed wire has not played such a significant or spectacular role in Ozark history as it did on the western plains where it probably vies with the invention of the repeating rifle and revolver in helping to tame the west. There the availability of cheap, easy to build fences allowed small farmers to fence out the ranging cattle and put barriers across northbound cattle drive trails, and enabled ranchers to fence their range land to keep out further settlements. The sudden change in the use of the land that barbed wire permitted caused many disputes, shooting and range wars until the range was finally fenced.

The introduction of barbed wire into the Ozarks was not so dramatic. The Ozarks was settled originally by small farmers for the topography of the area did not lend itself to large cattle ranges. Families would often homestead only forty, eighty or maybe one hundred and sixty acres. They farmed the open areas and the cleared creek and river bottoms or hollows for their own needs, using the rougher timbered areas for pasture for their small herds of stock. Instead of putting a fence around all their land, they fenced in their gardens and cultivated fields, allowing the stock to roam free range on their land, their neighbors' land, railroad land or any other unfenced land. In some southern Missouri counties this was the situation until quite recently.

Early fences were made with a great deal of labor from material at hand, which in the Ozarks was split rail fences or occasionally rock fences. The timber cleared off the fields, cut into rail lengths and split, made the necessary enclosure. Rocks carried off the field after every plowing would gradually form a fence, though usually not one adequate enough to turn stock.

However, not all the Ozark farms were wooded. There were regions of open prairies requiring farmers to haul logs several miles. The untreated rails would rot, would fall down or be torn
down easily by stock. So when barbed wire became available, the Ozark farmer made good use of it, though its widespread use was later here than in other areas of the United States.


In other regions, especially in the West where fields were much larger, where timber was not so available and where free range ceased to exist much earlier, farmers and stockmen needed some economical, permanent fencing that would not require so much labor to build and maintain. Barbed wire eventually came to fit that need, hailed in the 1880's and 90's as the last word in fencing. Since standardization of the improved wire and the invention of machines to manufacture it, there has been very little change in fencing wires in the twentieth century. Barbed wire is still the ultimate in farm fencing.

Wire was used for fencing in England as early as 1840, but woven and barbed wire was not developed until after 1860. The first patent in the United States was in 1867, though it was not until 1874 that Joseph Glidden of De Kalb, Illinois, invented a machine to manufacture it that barbed wire became usuable to any great extent.

Barbed wire today is made of two longitudinal wires twisted together to form a cable. Spaced at regular intervals are wire barbs wound around either one or both of the cables. The barbs are made from round, half round or flat wire, cut diagonally at the end to make a sharper point. There can be either two or four points depending on whether the barbs are formed of one wire or two. The barbs are about one inch from tip to tip. The wire is from 12 1/2 to 16 gauge wire with the barbs of slightly heavier gauge. The wire is galvanized for resistance to corrosion.

Before wire became standardized and in early days of experimentation, there were many kinds of wires and hundreds of patents. Some wires were single strand 9 gauge oval or flat wires with serrated edges. Many of them were easily broken under the pressure of cattle and the contraction and expansion in cold and hot weather. The Glidden wire with two strands twisted together permitted contraction and expansion and was strong enough to hold cattle without harming them.


The first of the barbed wire that came out around 1853 was a vicious, razor sharp wire without barbs. The idea was to turn stock. The animals did not know anything about the wire and when they ran into or through the fences they cut themselves all to pieces. Such wire is today called blind wire.

Farmers therefore had to fix the wire so that their animals could see it. They twisted wooden blocks, metal strips, tin plates, balls or anything they could devise into the wire to warn the stock that the fence was there. These warning devices saved a lot of animals from accidents that would have left them crippled or severely injured. The blocks let the animal see the fence was there before discovering it by running into it. These warning devices were sometimes added at the factory or were put on by the rancher or farmer himself.

The warning devices gained many nicknames through the years of use. Such names are "barbed wire signals," "indicators,'' "warning strips," "warning plates," and "cattle protectors." After the stock became used to the presence of the barbed wire fence, these warning devices lost their importance and were no longer put into use.

Boone's Round Guard Block 1884. Sheet metal insert holds round guard block to other wire

A good fencing wire that was used to keep stock from being injured was the Dodge's Spur Wheel. It was a visual wire, but if an animal leaned against it, the wheel would roll with him. The ends of the wheel would stick him just a little, but not hurt him.

Dodge's Spur Wheel 1881. Six point sheet metal barb rolls with cattle

Many different gimicks were used to give barbed wire a "see-ability" without the use of warning devices. Wire was developed with large plate barbs, or more commonly, twisted wires with evenly spaced barbs. Such a good visible wire would be the Riter's Visible Wire with Barbs.

Gimicks or variations of patented wires were made by men who claimed their variation was an improvement over the other ways of making wire. Many would get a patent but would find that manufacturing was too expensive to make and sell enough of their type of wire to make a success of it.

Riter's Visual 1893. Two strand wire with loose and tight twists in the wire

When wire fencing first came out, sometimes a farmer himself had to put a twist in the roll of wire he bought. There were tools to twist the wire, but the stories about this gadget vary so it is difficult to know which are true. According to the patent date, the twister came out before barbed wire.

The wire that won out over all, and is the wire we are buying and using today almost as it was when it was originally made is the Glidden wire. There is an interesting story about how it was first made. J.F. Glidden would make the barbs by twisting them around something a little larger than the wire. He then sent a man up on a windmill with two strands of greased wire with another man on the ground holding the other ends. The man up on the windmill put the barb on a wire and let it slide down. The man at the bottom put a twist or two in it. Another barb would be put on to slide down the greased wire and the two strands twisted again.


Glidden then experimented putting the twist of the wire on with a grind stone and a coffee mill before he invented a machine to produce it. His invention is basically the same process used today to manufacture barbed wire. Two cable wires are fed through the machine longitudinally. Wire for the two point barbs feeds into the machine at right angles from the side, going into a spinner which twists them around the cables. Cut-off knives cut the barbs to the desired length and point. The machine moves the cable to the proper distance and twists on another barb.

People did not immediately flock to buy the wire. Salesmen for the wire had to demonstrate to prove the wire's usefulness. A salesman named Gates went to a small town in Texas to show some of the cowboys and ranchers just what this new barbed wire would do. He had built a tall, high corral with lots of barbed wire on it in the street in the middle of the town. He then turned a bunch of wild longhorn cattle into the corral and got some cowboys to chase the cattle around in that corral trying to drive them out. The cattle got cut all to pieces but could not get out. After that demonstration the ranchers were convinced the wire would really work. Gates went back to Chicago with orders in his pocket for almost a trainload of the barbed wire. He had not been able to sell it before.

The introduction of barbed wire into the Ozarks came slowly. The Frisco Railroad was probably instrumental in first using barbed wire. The railroad used barbed wire to fence their right-of-way to keep roaming livestock from straying onto the tracks. The wire the railroad used mainly was variations of Buckthorn wire. There are many miles of it in the Ozarks along the tracks and is still in use as a fencing wire.

Ozark corner post

The railroad opened up better means of transporting freight as well as bringing in new people and ideas. Farmers recognized the value of the wire quietly demonstrating its efficiency all along the miles of the railroad which cut through the region. Access to the wire was easier, and word spread so that gradually the fenced in places of those who could afford it were made of wire.


The Ozark farmer thought more of his horses than his stock. The horse was his means of transportation and way of making a living. He early fenced in lots for his horses. When wire fencing was introduced, he used it for his horses, but did not want the barbs or dangerous wires which he would use for the cattle.


Some men and women interested in preserving evidences of the past which have had an influence on our history enjoy collecting different kinds of barbed wire, cataloging and labeling them and trading with other collectors. One of Charlie McMicken's interests is hunting all over the area looking for more wire to add to his collection of over 800 different kinds. He has walked miles along the Frisco right-of-way on both sides and in areas back from the tracks looking for different wires.

Charlie explained, "You see, the Frisco was probably the first to use barbed wire to fence here in this country. They had a fence on each side of the tracks. Now when a county road was built along side, they did not need a fence there anymore, and they gave it to any farmer to use or throw away. I have found six wires that I am sure the Frisco has used as part of their right-of-way fence, and the reason I feel that is because I have found them either as part of the fence or close by. Some of the wires are used more frequently than others. There is one wire I have found as much as twelve miles away from the tracks where the farmer threw it out.

On a farm along or close to the railroad you might find any kind of wire."

We asked Charlie where else would be a good place to find old barbed wire in the Ozarks. He said, "The place to find good barbed wire is in the prairie country rather than in the Ozarks, but if you become serious as a collector, you can get off away from the railroads and hunt in the prairie sections of the Ozarks. If it was five miles back to the woods from where they lived the people just didn't go and make rails. They bought wire and made fence. The people that lived in the woods did not have money enough--the further in the woods the less money they had. They were the ones who used rails. The farther you got from the woods, the better land and the more affluent they were. Look around any old field. To find the fence on an old field, go around the field out maybe four or five feet or maybe ten or fifteen feet. If you hunt hard enough you'll find evidence of a fence somewhere around the field.

Charlie Mc explains about barbed wire


"You should also look along old roads that people had to use to get from their house to the main road or to the railroad, especially if they were in back of another house. But first you should go to the farmer and ask permission to look for barbed wire on his land."

When Charlie finds wire worth collecting, he gets all he can of it and trades off what he doesn't need for his collection.

Early barbed wire has been mostly replaced by modern wire of lighter weight and higher tensile strength. As the old wire was replaced, it was rolled up and thrown away. Antique wire collectors need to be detectives to find the old discarded wires. When the collector finds the old fields, he looks for rolls hanging on trees or fence posts. He searches in grown-up or rocky corners, or in nearby junk heaps, sink holes or ditches.

When he finds the wire he cuts it into eighteen inch lengths for mounting, storing or trading. If the wire has an irregularity or splice, that defect should be in the middle of the length of wire for display purposes.

A collector can have dozens of variations of one patent. He may find wires with unusual situations, irregularities or splices which make the strand of wire valuable as a collector's item or show the stages in the development of wire. The irregularities can be factory errors, like barbs bunched together, wire not twisted correctly or other mistakes in manufacturing. The splices are where the wire was broken or cut, then spliced together at the factory.

People interested in wires can find books illustrating all kinds for easy identification and labeling. On the next page are a few of the barbed wires that Charlie Mc has found in the Ozarks.

Buckthorn wire with visible wood block still in use



First wire patented, November 18, 1890 by Samuel H. Gregg.
Spliced at center to form two-point barb. Variation of patent.
Looping edge strands. Inventor unknown.
Wire barb with two-points. Variation of patent.
Sheet metal with triangular openings. Patented May 12, 1885 by Irving A. and Melvin D. Kilmer.
Cutout barb points along one edge. Patented Jan. 13, 1885, by Franklin D. Ford.
Two-point wire barb. Patented October 20, 1959, by Raymond S. Doerr.
Sheet metal strip with tack barbs. April 18, 1882. George C. Baber.
Single-strand wire with two-point barb.
Strip has center core for reinforcement. Made but never patented.
Two-point barb with two-strand wire. Variation of patent.
Eight-point sheet metal barb plate with two-strand wire. Patented Oct. 23, 1883, by John Stubbe.
Two wire barbs with three strand wire. Variation of patent.
Four-point wire barb with three parallel single-wire strands. Patented Jan. 31, 1882, by Abram Ellwood.


Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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