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Finding a Fence

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  •  Early methods of fencing 
  •  Need for new method 
  •  Early adaptations on the Plains 
  •  Mass production and marketing 
  •  Impact on the Great Frontier 
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  •  Great Frontier #24 Finding A Fence 5/25/62 | 24-824 Hendricks | Sawyer 
  •  Countdown 
  •  The Great Frontier 
  •  A theory of the History of the Western World since 1492 
  •  by Walter Prescott Webb, Ph.D. 
  •  This is the third lecture in answer to the question "Did the frontier alter institutions?" An illustration I'm going to use today has to do with the simplest, one of the simplest devices known to practically all of the people in the world. 
  •  And that is the alteration, the revolution in fencing that took place in the United States when the people from the eastern woodland, left the woodland and came out on the plains and found it necessary to devise a new fence. 
  •  I'd like for all of you to imagine that you hold in your hand a piece of ordinary barbed wire such as you can see on any roadside or pasture fence. You'll notice that barbed wire is made of two strands and the strands are twisted and at intervals of about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 or 4 inches are rather savage barbs, designed to discourage livestock from crossing from one enclosure into another. 
  •  Well that fence is so common that you can hardly realize what a human struggle took place and experiments that were made before people were able to find this simple device. And that revolution in fencing took place in the United States, it took place at the western edge of the woodland and the eastern edge of the plains and this is the story. 
  •  When the colonists settled the United States, come back to this now familiar map that we've been using, they settled here in the woodland, in Virginia and Massachusetts and started moving west and they brought over from Europe, or soon were using the same type of fencing that they had used in Europe. 
  •  And they made the fence out of the material that they found on the ground that they occupied. The two main types of fence used was one made of rails in the level valley country and one made of rock or stone in the mountainous country such as New England where they call them stone walls and the poet Robert Frost has written a very beautiful poem about the stone walls. 
  •  We in the South called them rock fences. They in all of this use of rails, however, goes back to the fact that all of this country was forested, 
  •  and the rails were made from the usually from the logs that were cut in clearing the fields in preparation for the planting of crops. They, so, equipped with these two types of fences, the most familiar type of rail fence was what was known as the Virginia worm rail, built in a zigzag pattern something like, like that you can still see those fences in certain parts of the eastern United States or throughout this timberland. 
  •  Now when the line of settlements got out to the about the middle of the country and they undertook to move into the West, they found themselves in a land that had neither rails nor rock. 
  •  In short, there was nothing with which to build the fence from. They, resorted to all sorts of experiments, in an effort to find a substitute for the rail fence or for the rock fence. But they did not for a long time, they had very poor luck in doing this. 
  •  and if you could read the newspapers in the states on either side of this line, say in that area there, from the period of 1850, to the period of 1870, you would find that there is no, hardly any subject, that was discussed more generally been the subject of fencing. 
  •  And the great question that the people were asking themselves was, "What will we fence the prairies with? " They called this first segment of the plains and rightly , the prairie. 
  •  They did find, they did find some substitutes and the best substitute they found was the hedge fence, or it was sometimes called the live fence because it was made out of plants and all the plants that were used with any success had thorns on them. 
  •  And it was from those thorns that the inventors got the idea of barbed wire. One of the first barbed wire fence companies was called for Thorn Wire fence company. 
  •  Now, these adaptations, these early adaptations, that were made, when the frontier line crossed out of the woodlands into the plains, were not made by people in laboratories, but were made by thousands of people struggling with the problem at hand. 
  •  And as I said, the first effort was to use live fences or hedges. And the best plant that they found in the more humid portion of the Great Plains was what they call Osage orange, or what you might call the bois de arc tree because it was the very tough wood that the Indian used to make their bows from in the days of bows and arrows. 
  •  These bois de arc trees and bois de arc plants had practically every qualification that a plant could have to make a hedge. For one thing the wood was extremely tough and unyielding, the second thing it was equipped with thorns, the third thing was that you could stub it off at about the right height for a fence but it would not die and keep living and putting out branches 
  •  and the next qualification it had was it was easily produced from seed and all the nurseries in this region went into the production of bois de arc seedlings as they ordinarily would go into the production of fruit trees for orchardists. 
  •  The second plant, the second most popular plant, used for hedges was the, what was known as the Smith rose or McCartney rose, a very thick running rose vine. The objection to it was it was hard to control, and another objection was that it grew best in a damp climate, it would grow on the coasts, down on the coasts of the Gulf, the Texas Gulf Coast 
  •  you will still find old fields there covered with great clusters of these rose vines. All of these hedges, there were objections to all of them, one that you had to work constantly in pruning them to keep them from growing up and shading the crops, and you had to work also to keep them from spreading and occupying the entire field. 
  •  But they were the best they had, and in these states along the eastern portion of the Great Plains, Kansas Nebraska there were hundreds of miles of these hedge fences made there mainly of the Osage orange plants. Well, they also tried to use cactus for hedges, 
  •  they tried to use mesquite, and there are records in the West of people making mud fences which gave us a figure of speech. And then about 1873, all this discussion of what we will fence the prairies with was suddenly cut off. 
  •  And it was cut off because of an event that took place in Illinois, at a little town called DeKalb, where there was a public normal school. And that country had been settled by New England farmers. Three of these farmers were Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haisch. h a i s ch, and Isaac Elwood. Joseph Jacob and Isaac, their very names would indicate that they came up religious stock, 
  •  although the way they sued each other after they became millionaires would probably cause you to doubt that they were overzealous in their practice of their religion but I'm wandering from the point. 
  •  At a little fair they had it at DeKalb, which was hear at the edge of the prairie region, a man by the name of Rose had brought what he thought was a substitute fence. And what he had was a piece of molding, about like this, on this board here, and he had driven nails through it and set up two posts and nailed the board to the posts with the points of the nails protruding towards the stock with the idea that they would push against it, 
  •  and they would be discouraged from pushing against it. The story that was told was that Glidden and Haisch and Elwood all came up and looked at Rose's fence, and they had the idea that you could get the same effect by the use of wire. 
  •  I must say that their evidence in my opinion is quite unreliable, and I suspect the idea was evolved by some one man, and the others borrowed it. 
  •  But it any rate, however that may be, within a very few weeks, all three of these men were making a new kind of wire, barbed wire. And, Glidden applied for a patent, Haisch also applied for a patent, and they were selling, there were such a demand for this wire that they were selling it at $.20 a pound, $20 per 100, which was an enormous price. 
  •  Now, the advantage of the story of the evolution of the wire itself is interesting. Glidden left an account of how he discovered certain essential things about barbed wire. One of his stories he explained why, how he learned to twist the wire. 
  •  You would see this section of barbed wire, you've theoretically held in your hand at the beginning of this lecture, you notice that it's twisted. I may say somewhat dogmatically that you couldn't have a successful barbed wire with a single strand. 
  •  The reason you can't have it is because of the expansion and contraction of metal in response to heat and cold. When the weather was hot, a single wire will expand and become very slack, and cattle could go through it, livestock to go through it. 
  •  And when it's cold, it contracts and gets too tight, and if, it will break. So that another objection is as straight smooth wire the barbs would rotate on the wire, they also would slide on the wire, laterally, so that you could not hold the barbs rigid, and you could not hold them in place. 
  •  The story that Glidden told was that he, his wife had some flower beds, and in the summertime when the weather was hot, the dogs would come into the flower beds that had been watered and scratch them up to get find damp cool earth to lie down in. 
  •  And his wife made life pretty uncomfortable for Glidden to get him to go out and put some sort of fence around the flower beds to keep the dogs out. He said that he put wire around it and that didn't keep them out, and then he conceived the idea of putting barbs on the wire. 
  •  That would be a smooth wire. The story sounds a little fishy but he swore it was true, and of course that makes it true for our purposes. He said that he picked up, he went out and picked up some tangled wire, and that tangled in the wire suggested to him 
  •  very suddenly that if he'd twist two wires, that he would lock the barbs and keep them from so that they couldn't slide laterally so that they couldn't rotate. He probably didn't think about the expansion and contraction and the fact that twisted wire is a sort of a spring that will give to heat and cold it will stretch as the pressure is put on it. 
  •  Glidden testified that he called his wife when he had this idea of the twisted wire, she came out and he fastened, he had a grindstone in the yard. Well I hope all of you know what a grindstone is it's a stone, circular stone used to sharpen farm tools on 
  •  with a shaft running through it that turned by crank turned the grindstone by a crank. He fastened the two pieces of wire to the shaft, and held them out say at the length, a distance of 20 feet, and he had his wife turn the grindstone and twisted the first wire. 
  •  He also told or had his hired man whose name was Andrew Johnson, told how he made the barbs for this first wire. Johnson said that he made the barbs at night after they had finished the days work. 
  •  There wasn't any eight hour day at that time, and while they were sitting around at night, resting after a days work, they would make these barbs. And here, Glidden used another home implement of that period, 
  •  a coffee mill, where they ground the coffee. It also has a shaft with the axle extending through it and he fastened a pin in the center of this crankshaft, and then another pin just off-center and they'd stick this smooth wire in there and give it one turn, and it would wrap the end of the wire around the center pin take it off, cut the wire, 
  •  leaving the two barbs exposed, and put the barbs in a bucket. The next morning they would send a boy up on a windmill tower with a bucket of barbs and a set of lengths of wire extending to the ground as he said, greased, thread the barbs on the single wire they drift down and be set 
  •  by striking them with a hammer on an anvil and then take the two wires and twist them together. Well, you can see that that was an extremely crude wire, but the people were so desperate for something with which to fence the open country that they came and hauled this wire away as rapidly as it was made. 
  •  And while this may not be an essential part of the story it's a part, it is related to industrialization and how machinery took over. This smooth wire was bought from a company at Worcester Massachusetts called Washburn and Moen. 
  •  And Washburn was practical businessman and very curious about why he was getting so many orders from a little place called DeKalb Illinois, from three different men. 
  •  And so he packed his carpetbag and got on the train and went to DeKalb to see what was happening out there, and when he got there he found these men making this new type of wire in their barns and in temporary sheds that they had set up and found them marketing it as fast as they could make it. 
  •  He tried to buy an interest in this from one of them but but none of them was sell. And so he went back to Worcester and called in a maker of automatic machinery. He carried his sample of the barbed wire with him and he told the mechanic to make a machine that would make this barbed wire twist it, but the barbs 
  •  on it and all. And in a very short time, the man had perfected the machine, and he took it to, he patented it. And then he got on the train and went back to DeKalb with the trump card in his pocket, he knew that he could deal with these, one of these three farmers. 
  •  Well he bought out, he bought a half interest from Glidden who seems to have been the most successful of these men, paid him $60,000 for a half interest in the business and agreed to pay him $.05 a hundred royalty on all of the barbed wire that was made by those factories. 
  •  Well it was not until this invention was made that it was possible for the farmers to move into the Great Plains with any degree of economy or any certainty of not having their crops eaten up by the livestock that ran loose on the open range. 
  •  I would say that barbed wire was shipped for the next few years from 1873 when it was invented down to 1890, it was shipped into the West, not by carloads, but by the trainload. 
  •  Everywhere that barbed wire fences sprang up around the land holdings. The wire, the making of a three strand barbed wire fence was so cheap, then they could now fence the big ranches. 
  •  Which they never could have done with the use of rails or rock or any of the other devices that had, that they had hit upon prior to that time. Now I again I want to warn you that this brief story is an answer to the this single question, "Does a frontier modify institutions?" 
  •  The first one I gave had to do with weapons, the modification of the gun. The second had to do with the modification of the methods of growing cattle. 
  •  And the third had to do with the invention of a fence, one that would be practical in the Great Plains region. That concludes that story of the fence for this time. 
  •  The Great Frontier 
  •  Walter Prescott Webb Ph.D. Professor of History 
  •  The Great Frontier produced by Radio/Television The University of Texas 
  •  financial assistance The Ford Foundation 
  •  directed by Lyle J. Hendricks 
  •  The Great Frontier 
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Title:Finding a Fence
Description:Lecture given by Dr. Webb for his "Great Frontier" video series.  In this video he addresses the question, "Did the frontier alter institutions?" using the example of barbed wire in the American Midwest and, later, in the Great Plains. Dr. Webb traces the development of different fencing techniques used by settlers as they advanced into the American heartland during the mid and late nineteenth century. After experimenting with hedges as a replacement for stone or rails in areas where neither of these materials could be found, several inventors in a small town in Illinois introduced barbed wire in 1873. This material essentially solved the fencing problem on the frontier and helped pave the way for further westward movement. 
Country:United States
CreatorRadio/Television Department, University of Texas at Austin
Webb, Walter Prescott (lecturer)
Source:Webb (Walter Prescott) Papers
Contributor:Hendricks, Lyle
PublisherDolph Briscoe Center for American History
Rights:Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
Original Format:2 inch videotape


The rich media version of this video was created by Quinn Stewart, 2009. His work was made possible by the School of Information, University of Texas at Austin and the Institute for Museum & Library Services.