The Devil's Rope


As this column's title suggests, we travel around a good bit. Usually we confine ourselves to Columbia County and our near neighbors. This week though, we find ourselves a thousand miles away in a place quite similar to Columbia County. This week we're on the Midwestern prairie, DeKalb County, Illinois to be exact, a place where something happened that changed the world.

The town of DeKalb, Illinois is the place. The event; 126 years ago Isaac Ellwood, Joseph Glidden and Jacob Haish pooled their resources and ingenuity to invent and manufacture barbed wire. Within five years they were all very wealthy, the change had begun. Barbed wire did for them what Internet stocks and e-commerce are doing for some today.

As the story goes Glidden was attending a county fair and witnessed a demonstration. A wooden rail with sharp nails protruding along its sides, hanging inside a smooth wire fence. This gave Glidden an idea. He formed barbs using an improvised coffee bean grinder, then twisted them at intervals along a smooth strand of wire. He then twisted another strand of wire around the first to hold the barbs in a fixed position. Glidden's invention set off a barbed wire frenzy, eventually there were over 530 barbed wire patents. Three years of legal battles ensued over patent rights. In the end Glidden's patent, "Number 157,124" issued in 1874, became the most successful.

Glidden used his money to found and published a newspaper, the DeKalb Chronicle, open a hotel and purchase a 250,000-acre cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle.

Isaac Ellwood created the I.L. Ellwood Manufacturing Company and manufactured the wire. The company employed 400 men. Every day the company produced 1,200 spools containing 108 pounds of wire each. With that daily output they were often as much as 100 to 150 railroad cars behind; the demand for barbed wire was that great. Ellwood did not sacrifice quality though to meet the demand. The company's motto in the 1880's was a proud claim, "To make none but the best goods".

Barbed wire ultimately meant the end of freedom for the cattle driving rancher and the cowboy and opened the door to the settling of the west. The vast prairies soon became closed ranges of private property, farms, and continually expanding settlements. Think of it this way; there probably wouldn't be any shopping malls if it weren't for barbed wire. Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In," plays in my head as I mull over the open-range cowboy's thoughts. Barbed wire influenced life as dramatically as the telegraph, the windmill or the railroad. Religious groups labeled barbed wire "The Devil's Rope" and demanded it be outlawed. Their protests were largely ignored; the demand was too great. The last strand barbed wire manufactured in DeKalb, Illinois was in 1938.

The philanthropic deeds of Ellwood, Glidden and Haish are legendary in DeKalb. Hospitals, churches, public libraries and opera houses were built. DeKalb's Northern Illinois University exists primarily due to the progressive, long-range vision and financial support of these three men.

The Isaac Ellwood mansion still stands. Tours are available, so I visited the place. The house is filled with pure Victorian splendor. In the visitors center I took in the display of barbed wire. As I stood there inspecting the 18-inch strands of prickly wire I considered how something as simple as sharpened, twisted wire could make three men very wealthy, drastically change the course of the American West and eventually alter the lives of millions of people the world over. "The Devil's rope," I whisper to myself, "pretty powerful stuff."

Only one other product of DeKalb has approached the magnitude of renown that barbed wire achieved, Cindy Crawford. She was born in DeKalb, Illinois. In today's pop culture world it's likely more people have heard of Cindy Crawford than even know what barbed wire is.

DeKalb County is similar to Columbia County because it is fueled by agriculture. Corn and soybeans grow everywhere and there are hog and cattle farms, too. The biggest difference though is visually apparent; it's flat.

We'll take one more look at these flatlanders of rural DeKalb County next time, From The Road.

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