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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

The Man Who Fenced the West

By Dorinda Troutman, RMR Staff Writer

 

July 2009 Issue

     Before fencing could have widespread use throughout the West, it had to be accepted by cattle ranchers who had been using the unfenced, “open range” since taking it over from their caballero predecessors in what had been New Spain — a territory that included Mexico, Texas, west to California and north to what are now Utah and Wyoming.

     Open range operators, who wished to control the best areas for cattle grazing, hired “line riders” to patrol boundaries and look after their cattle.

     As more people moved west after the Civil War, ranchers wanted to fence off the best grazing lands and farmers wished to protect their fields from livestock, but there was little natural material with which to build fences in the huge open land.

      In 1876, just months after 21-year-old John Warne Gates married Dellora Baker, his wife urged him to close his hardware store in Illinois and to look for another job — specifically one selling a new product that had just been patented: barbed wire. Gates was hired and given the State of Texas for his territory.

     Texas cattle ranchers scoffed at the idea that a few strands of barbed wire could contain their half-wild, thousand-pound longhorns — and without injuring them. So far, other salesmen had not been able to persuade these Southern ranchers that they should invest in flimsy-appearing strands made and marketed by Yankees.

     Inspired by the performance of a popular medicine show of the time, Gates convinced the mayor and city council of San Antonio that he could fence the Military Plaza with barbed wire, and put on a demonstration with a herd of longhorns that would be stampeded inside the enclosure.

     Gates offered to take all bets on the outcome (one account is of him offering $10 a cow to anyone who had cattle strong enough to go through the fence) and issued a challenge:

 

     “This fence is the finest in the world, light as air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dirt, and all steel and miles long. The cattle ain’t born that can get through it. Bring on your most ferocious steers, gentlemen, and see how this barbed wire corral will hold them.”

 

     When the cattle could not be driven through the fence with noise or fire — and were unharmed — ranchers were at last convinced that barbed wire would hold them.

     Gates soon sold all the wire that his employers could manufacture for the next two years. Boxcar after boxcar of barbed wire began to be shipped to Texas .

     One account, by H.R. Richardson, of Austin , told of the unloading of a boxcar of wire at the Richardson Store in Mexia , Texas :

 

     “The box car has been at the depot for two days, but my father couldn’t find anyone who knew how to or would unload the car. When Gates arrived he and my father built a chute and slid the wire on to the ramp. They then got some help. I remember one roll of wire sliding down the ramp, and it nearly tore the boot off an on-looking cowboy. They did get it unloaded. My father only made five cents a pound for the wire, but he began to sell a lot of it.”

 

     In 1875, Gates’ employer had only sold 10,000 pounds of barbed wire. In 1880, mostly through Gates’ ingenious selling methods, the company sold 50.8 million pounds in Texas alone. This had made Gates wealthy.

     When Gates demanded and was refused partnership with his employers, he began his own production company of unpatented and unlicensed barbed wire in Saint Louis , and became known as the “Barbed Wire King.” By that time there were more than 570 patents on types of barbed wire.

     With the money he made in barbed wire, Gates built other empires: in steel, oil (with the most famous gusher ever, Spindletop — becoming Texas Oil Company, now known as Texaco).

     In 1899, through a series of deals and counter-deals, Gates ended up as Chairman of the Board of the American Steel and Wire Company of New Jersey , which was later sold to J.P. Morgan and became U.S. Steel.

     Gates was also a famous gambler — at poker, the stock market and horse races — earning his other nickname, “Bet-a-Million” Gates in 1900 after betting and winning huge sums at a steeplechase race in England.

     By the time of his death in 1911, Gates was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

 

     Information in this article is from the Illinois Historical Society, the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Texas, Ellwood House and Museum, DeKalb, Illinois, DuPage County Heritage Society, “A History of Barb Wire,” by Tom Mitchell, in the Navarro County Historical Society, and “Texas, a Modern History,” by David McComb.

 

Miracle of America Museum  

Barbed Wire Display

     For lovers of history, antiques, old “junk,” militaria, airplanes, folk art, Western artifacts, tools, antique automobiles and motorcycles, trains, old military vehicles and transport, engines, machines, and much more, the Miracle of America Museum, in Polson, Montana, is the perfect place to spend a couple of hours or an entire day.

     The museum has a large collection of historic barbed wire pieces donated by a lifelong collector, Harry Johnson, of Kalispell , Montana .

     We have more than 600 pieces of barbed wire and fencing equipment,” says Joanne Mangles, co-founder of the museum with her husband Gil. “In addition to wire, we have all the old tools needed to put up barbed wire fencing including stretchers, winches, pliers, wire cutters and even two original cedar posts with the wire still attached.”

     Live History Day is celebrated the third weekend in July each year at the Museum and in 2009 will be held Saturday and Sunday July 18 - 19. There will be demonstrations of leatherwork, Indian beading, blacksmithing, wood carving, spinning, quilt making, weaving, trains, a 4-H food booth, live music and photo opportunities with a “UFO.” Old airplanes and jets will be on display, and for the kids and young at heart WWII Jeep and amphibious cargo carrier rides, and train rides on two small trains. One-cylinder and steam engines will be running. Cost is $5/day per child or adult and includes unlimited rides. 

            Miracle of America Museum is located just south of Polson , Montana . Contact the museum at 406-883-6804, or visit MiracleOfAmericaMuseum.org.

 

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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

 

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