ELLWOOD HOUSE MUSEUM

The Ellwood House Museum reflects the central role of Isaac Ellwood in the development of the barbed wire industry in America. The magnificent estate testifies to his aptitude for business and the breadth of his vision. It also reflects the tastes of multiple generations of the Ellwood family who guided the evolution of the grounds and structures.

 

LOCATION

Ellwood House Museum
509 North First Street
DeKalb, IL 60115

The Visitor Center is located behind the 1879 mansion. The parking lot can be reached by traveling west on Augusta Avenue to Linden Place.

CONTACT INFORMATION

815-756-4609  
info@ellwoodhouse.org
Contact us

hours of operation

Our tour season runs from March 1 through the first weekend of December. The Visitor Center exhibit galleries are open year round. A full tour schedule and Visitor Center hours can be found below.

VISIT

We offer guided tours of both the mansion and neighboring Ellwood-Nehring House. The Visitor Center, located behind the mansion, contains four exhibit galleries which are free and open to the public year-round. Please see LEARN for more information about educational programming and school tours and EVENTS for our special events schedule.

visit_1.jpg

MANSION TOURS

All historic house tours last approximately one hour and start inside the Visitor Center. Please see below for the tour schedule and admission prices.


GUIDED mansion TOUR schedule (MARCH 1 - NOVEMBER 14)

A guided tour through 3 floors and the basement of the 1879 mansion

Monday: Closed
Tuesday - Saturday: 1:00 PM & 3:00 PM
Sunday: 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM, & 3:00 PM

HIGHLIGHTS TOUR schedule (march 1 - NOVEMBER 14)

A guided tour of the first floor levels of both the mansion and the neighboring Ellwood-Nehring House

Friday & Saturday: 2:00 PM

regular GUIDED TOUR admission prices

$8: Adults
$7: Students, Seniors (Ages 65+), AAA Members, Military
$6: National Trust Members, Midwest Museum of Natural History Members (Adults)
$4: Northern Illinois University Honors Students
$3: Youth (Ages 6-17)
$2: Midwest Museum of Natural History Members (Youth)
Free: Ellwood House Members, Children Under 6

large group tours

Tours for groups of ten or more may be scheduled in advance. Due to the larger group size, tours take approximately 90 minutes. Please call 815-756-4609 or email king@ellwoodhouse.org for reservations.

Photography & Video Policy 

Exterior photography on the grounds is allowed. No permits or fees are required, but large groups are encouraged to call in advance. Interior photography is prohibited everywhere except the Visitor Center. 

Holiday decorated mansion tours (November 15 - 30)

A guided tour through 3 floors and basement level of the elegantly decorated 1879 mansion. Guided tours take approximately 60 minutes.

Monday: Closed
Tuesday - Thursday: 1:00 PM & 3:00 PM
Friday - Sunday: 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM, & 3:00 PM

2019 holiday event weekend

Friday, December 6: 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM
Saturday, December 7: 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Sunday, December 8: 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM

Holiday tour & event admission prices

$10: Adults
$5: Youth (Ages 6-17)
Free: Ellwood House Members, Children Under 6

the museum will be closed the following holidays in 2019

Tuesday, January 1 for New Year’s Day
Sunday, April 21 for Easter
Sunday, May 12 for Mother's Day
Thursday, July 4 for Independence Day
Thursday, November 28 for Thanksgiving
Tuesday, December 24 for Christmas Eve
Wednesday, December 25 for Christmas Day
Tuesday, December 31 for New Year’s Eve

accessibility

The first floors of the mansion and Ellwood-Nehring House are wheelchair accessible. Both levels of the Visitor Center are wheelchair accessible


VISITOR CENTER EXHIBIT GALLERIES

The Visitor Center galleries are free and open to the public year-round. Exhibits include a variety of long- and short- term displays.

visitor center hours (march - november)

Tuesday - Sunday: 12:30 PM to 4:30 PM

visitor center hours (December - february)

Tuesday - Friday: 12:30 PM to 4:30 PM


Depicting DeKalb County
May 21 - July 7, 2019

The museum is celebrating the beauty and complexity of DeKalb County by hosting an exhibition of artwork created by local artists. Twenty-one artists will showcase their work from May 21 to July 7, 2019 in the second-floor museum galleries of the Visitor Center. An opening reception will be held from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM on May 23.

EXHIBITING ARTISTS

Gary Bellert, Carol Bingham*, Larry L. Bond, Richard Born, Pam Bradford, Cliff Cleland, Richard M. Cooler, Tracy Coyle, Noel (Brye) Davis, Daniel Grych, Jordyn Jackson, Sara Lamberty, Christine Myroth, Tim O’Shaughnessy, Linda Thornton Peterson, Alec Rossiter, Tamara Shriver*, Alfred Stark, Barbara L. Taylor, Sarah Tobias*, Steven Tritt*

*Artist with work featured on graphic below

Depicting DeKalb County Postcard Preview-1.jpg

GARDENS & GROUNDS

Situated on a ten-acre estate, the museum campus features grassy lawns, a wooded area, formal gardens, two native garden areas, and the Berg Garden. The gardens reflect two generations of the Ellwood family and incorporate changing ideas about architecture and the landscape. Influenced by Harriet Ellwood’s passion for Victorian collecting of exotic plant types and May Ellwood’s pursuit of an Arts and Crafts garden, the grounds are a perfect place to explore. The gardens and grounds are open dawn to dusk and can be explored seven days a week without a tour guide.

LEARN

The museum offers a variety of educational programs for all ages throughout the year.

_MMG1009.jpg

ELLWOOD EXPLORERS

generously funded by the cy miller foundation

Ellwood Explorers is a series of monthly family programs offered from April through December. All programs are free of charge and last approximately one hour. Programs take place rain or shine. Please see below for the 2019 Ellwood Explorers schedule.


Postcard Front.JPG
Postcard Back.jpg

BROWN BAG LUNCH/LOCAL LORE
Adult Lecture Series

presented in partnership with the dekalb county history center

partially funded by the mary e. stevens concert and lecture fund

Brown Bag Lunch /Local Lore is a series of lecture programs related to history, collections care, and historic preservation. Once a month, a knowledgeable speaker will present an hour-long program at a site in DeKalb County. All programs are free of charge and open to the public.


2019 Lecture Series.jpg

DIGITAL PHOTO COLLECTION

Portions of the museum’s collection of historic photographs have been scanned and uploaded to SmugMug, a digital photo sharing platform. Click the button below to access the collection.

IL and Patty Conservatory Edited.jpg

SCHOOL TOURS

Cost

School field trips are free of charge.

group size

Due to space limitations inside the mansion, the maximum number of students we can accommodate at one time is 45.

Times

We prefer to host field trips in the morning and can begin as early as 9:00 AM. School tours cannot be scheduled for 1:00 PM or 3:00 PM. School tours are available Tuesday through Friday. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Food & Drink

Lunches can be brought and eaten on the grounds. The Hearthside Room in the Visitor Center may be available as a backup in case of inclement weather. Please contact our office for availability.

Chaperones

We appreciate chaperones, but we ask that you limit parent chaperones to 2 adults per visit - not including teachers and staff.

Special Programming

We offer tours specifically designed for elementary-aged students. Please see below for details.

Time Travelers

2nd Grade Program

Students will discover how historical documents and artifacts can lead to answers to historical questions. During a guided tour of the mansion, students will learn how the building itself is a historical artifact that provides a look into the past.

program purpose

Students will be introduced to Isaac Ellwood and the barbed wire industry in DeKalb, learning how barbed wire impacted the lives of the Ellwood family and why Isaac Ellwood was important to the development of DeKalb.

Program Logistics

The program lasts 90 minutes. Please call our office at 815-756-4609 or email Audrey King at king@ellwoodhouse.org for more information or to book this program.

Hard Work

4TH & 5TH GRADE PROGRAM

Students see and feel what life was like for those individuals who worked for the Ellwood family around the turn of the twentieth century. While touring the mansion's work areas and staff living quarters, students will try hands-on some of the jobs done by staff members.

program PURPOSE

The program familiarizes students with differences in lifestyle between the Ellwood family and their working class staff. Students will gain an appreciation for the complexity and physicality of working at the Ellwood House. Students will also learn about the immigration experience and how education, language, and practical skills determine the types of jobs available to the Ellwood House staff.

PROGRAM LOGISTICS

The program lasts 90 minutes. Please call our office at 815-756-4609 or email Audrey King at king@ellwoodhouse.org for more information or to book this program.


FAMILY TOUR PASSES

Museum family passes, including free admission to a regularly scheduled tour for up to five children and two adults, are available to borrow through the DeKalb Public Library’s Children’s Department. Passes must be used within one week of check-out and are available from March 1 through November 14. Before your visit, click the button below to access additional information and activities.

EVENTS

The museum presents a variety of special events throughout the year.

Concert Panoramic.jpg

MUSIC AT THE MANSION
Summer Concert Series
June 12 - August 7, 2019 (Wednesday evenings)
Pre-Show 6:30 PM Main Show 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM

Join us this summer for the 2019 Music at the Mansion concert series. Each Wednesday evening from June 12 to August 7 (except July 3), free 90-minute performances in a variety of genres will be presented on the front lawn of the mansion.

POPS at the Mansion (CANCELLED)
Wednesday, June 12
Mary J. Harris Band Sponsors: DeKalb County OnLine

Margaritaville at the Mansion
Wednesday, June 19
Mr. Myers Band Sponsors: Tom & Jerry’s Sycamore

Rat Pack at the Mansion
Wednesday, June 26
Chicago Rat Pack Tribute Band

Blues at the Mansion
Wednesday, July 10
Johnny & The Boomers

Salsa at the Mansion
Wednesday, July 17
Salsa del Norte

Country at the Mansion
Wednesday, July 24
Back Country Roads

Jukebox at the Mansion
Wednesday, July 31
The Elderly Brothers

Big Band at the Mansion
Wednesday, August 7
Jazz in Progress Sponsors: FunME Events

Live music at the Ellwood House Museum is supported by the Farny R. Wurlitzer Foundation Fund

Music at the Mansion.JPG

DESSERT IN THE GARDENS
(A MEMBERS’ ONLY EVENT)
Thursday, June 27, 2019
6:00 PM to 8:00 PM

Ellwood House members are invited to stroll the gardens while enjoying a variety of desserts, served from the rear terrace of the Ellwood-Nehring House. If you would like to become a member, or renew your membership, please click the button below.

2019 Dessert in the Gardens Postcard (Front).jpg

ELLWOOD SUMMER FESTIVAL
Sunday, August 4, 2019
12:00 PM to 4:00 PM

Bring the whole family for a day of history, art, music, and activities on the grounds of the museum campus.

Summer Fest Logo.jpg

WINE ON THE TERRACE
Saturday, September 21, 2019
4:00 PM to 7:00 PM

Enjoy an evening of fine wine, delicious appetizers, and music in the incomparable setting of the Ellwood House terraces and gardens.

Wine on the Terrace.jpg

HOLIDAY TRADITIONS
November 15 - December 8, 2019

Kick off your holiday season with a visit to the elegantly decorated mansion. Guided mansion tours will run from November 15 through 30, with self-guided tours available during the annual Holiday Event Weekend, December 6-8.

LivingRoom (2).jpg

RENTALS

The museum offers three unique rental spaces on ten acres of gardens and grounds.


ELLWOOD-NEHRING HOUSE

A site of unmatched elegance, the Ellwood-Nehring House is the perfect venue for a small reception, rehearsal dinner, or wedding ceremony and is a beautiful backdrop for photographs.

Rental Information

  • 1899 Tudor Revival style mansion with beautiful architectural detail and woodwork throughout

  • Maximum capacity: Up to 80 for reception-style seating, up to 54 banquet-style, up to 50 theater-style

  • Accessible via stairs or ramp

  • Two restrooms, one of which is ADA compliant

  • Fully equipped kitchen

  • Rental includes first floor only (second floor unavailable)

Rental dates & times

March 1 - June 30 & September 1 - November 30

Monday: Closed
Tuesday - Thursday: 9:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Friday & Saturday: 9:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sunday: 9:00 AM - 9:00 PM

Interior photography

Photography sessions can be scheduled Tuesday-Sunday by appointment.

FEES

Space Rental: $350/hour
Interior Photography Sessions: $150/hour (one hour minimum)

Rental fees are charged for the time needed for set up and take down of food service and decorations by renter/caterer. Discounts available for use of multiple facilities on the same date.

PROVISIONS

  • On-site staff person

  • Set up of tables & chairs (linens & decorations are not provided)

  • Trash removal

FOOD & BEVERAGE

If no alcohol is served, any caterer can be used for rentals of the Ellwood-Nehring House. Alcohol service requires approved caterers. The Ellwood-Nehring House can be fan cooled but is not air conditioned.

availability

For availability and more information please contact Donna Gable, Director of Visitor Services by e-mailing dgable@ellwoodhouse.org.

GARDEN WEDDINGS

Since 1967, the Ellwood House gardens have been a memorable setting for outdoor wedding ceremonies.

Rental Information  

  • Space available for parties of up to 80

  • Weather alternative space available

  • Views of the mansion and 4 distinct gardens on 10 acres

rental dates

May 15 - October 15

rental times

Garden weddings may be scheduled for before 12:00 PM or after 5:00 PM. The gardens are not available for weddings between 12:00 PM and 5:00 PM.

Fees

The garden wedding fee is $500. Discounts are available for use of multiple facilities on the same date.

PROVISIONS

  • Use of garden for ceremony and for rehearsal the day before

  • Use of the Hearthside Room in the Visitor Center as back up in case of inclement weather (chairs provided in Hearthside Room)

  • Use of Visitor Center restrooms

  • Use of grounds and building exteriors for photography

  • Staff person in the Visitor Center

  • Renters must make their own provisions for a wedding officiant. Chairs are not provided for garden weddings.

FOOD & BEVERAGE

No alcohol is allowed on the grounds. Outdoor rentals are limited to ceremonies only. Outdoor receptions are not allowed.

availability

For availability and more information please contact Donna Gable, Director of Visitor Services by e-mailing dgable@ellwoodhouse.org.

HEARTHSIDE ROOM

Located in the Visitor Center, the Hearthside Room is a charming spot for an intimate reception, rehearsal dinner, shower,
or wedding ceremony.

Rental Information

  • Building modeled after the original 1911 multi-car garage, with a fireplace mantle originally located in the Ellwood House

  • Two pairs of French doors open to a small patio with a view of the woods, mansion, and the Little House

  • Bad weather back up site for garden weddings

  • Capacity: 80 (reception, banquet, or theater style)

  • Building and restrooms meet ADA standards

  • Fully equipped kitchen

  • Located on first floor of two-story Visitor Center

Rental dates & times

March - November

Monday: Closed
Tuesday - Sunday: 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM

FOOD & BEVERAGE

Alcohol cannot be served. Any caterer can be used.

FEES

Tuesday - Friday, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM: $50/hour
Tuesday - Friday, 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM: $75/hour
Saturday & Sunday 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM: $75/hour
Saturday & Sunday 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM: $50/hour
Saturday & Sunday 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM: $75/hour

Rental fees are charged for the time needed for set up and take down of food service and decorations by renter/caterer. Discounts available for use of multiple facilities on the same date.

PROVISIONS

  • On-site staff person

  • Setup of tables & chairs (linens & decorations not provided)

  • Trash removal

availability

For availability and more information please contact Donna Gable, Director of Visitor Services by e-mailing dgable@ellwoodhouse.org.

JOIN & GIVE

The Ellwood House Association is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that relies on the generosity of visitors and supporters to fulfill its mission.


PerryEllwoods.jpg

MEMBERSHIP

Ellwood House members enjoy a full year of exclusive benefits and experiences including special events, programs, and discounts, all while providing crucial support for programs, exhibits, and restoration.

Membership benefits & levels

All members receive the following benefits:

Free tour admission to the Ellwood House and Ellwood-Nehring House for one year

Invitations to special members' only events, such as the annual Holiday Members' Night

A subscription to the museum's quarterly newsletter, the "Ellwood House Herald"

A 10% discount on all items in the Museum Shop

Individual
($25/year, $48/two years)

Includes the benefits listed above for one person for one year.

Family
($35/year, $65/two years)

Includes the benefits listed above for one household for one year.

Contributing
($50/year, $95/two years)

Includes Family Membership benefits + 10% off rental rates in the Hearthside Room.

Sustaining
($100/year, $190/two years)

Includes Contributing Membership benefits + two free guest passes for our standard tour or the annual Holiday Open House.

Sponsor
($250/year)

Includes Contributing Membership benefits + four free guest passes for our standard tour or the annual Holiday Open House.

Patron
($500/year)

Includes Sponsor Membership benefits + one custom tour arranged at your convenience for your family or friends.

Benefactor
($1,000/year)

Includes Patron Membership benefits + one free use of the Hearthside Room for your private party.

 

For more information about memberships contact Scott Tews, Assistant Director by e-mailing tews@ellwoodhouse.org or calling 815-756-4609.


SUPPORT

The complex of buildings is both the property of the DeKalb Park District and the Ellwood House Association, Inc. (which runs the entire complex as a museum). The DeKalb Park District provides for building maintenance, repairs, utilities, tree care, mowing, and snow removal of Ellwood Park. The remainder of funds needed for restoration, collections, research, and museum operations must be raised from a variety of sources.

We work with individuals, corporations, foundations, and government agencies to support every facet of the museum. Individuals may join as a member, contribute to a special campaign, or make a general donation to the museum's greatest needs. The Ellwood Society engages individuals who have included the Ellwood House Museum in their estate plans or have established planned gifts to the museum. Corporations may support the Ellwood House in a variety of ways, such as sponsoring an event or exhibit. 

For more information contact Brian Reis, Executive Director by emailing breis@ellwoodhouse.org  or calling 815-756-4609.


PROJECT 1879

The Ellwood House is pleased to announce a three-year mansion restoration challenge grant in conjunction with the Jeffris Family Foundation of Janseville, Wisconsin. Please click the button below for more information about this exciting project.

GET INVOLVED

The Ellwood House Museum relies on a strong team of board members, staff, interns, and dedicated volunteers. If you would like to join our team, please see below for current opportunities.

jim.jpg

INTERNSHIPS

Selenia Rolfe Towle Teague Education Intern
The goal of this education internship is to assist in the creation and execution of the museum's educational programming. The intern will work closely with museum staff to deliver guided tours as well as youth and adult programming.

Application Deadline: April 15

Internship runs from May through August
Includes a $500 stipend

Tour Guide & Museum Operations Intern
The goal of the Tour Guide & Museum Operations internship is to assist during the museum's summer season by delivering one-hour guided historic house tours, supporting museum operations in the Visitor Center, and aiding in the setup and execution of the Music at the Mansion concert series.

Application Deadline: April 15

Internship runs from May through August
Includes a $500 stipend

 

William C. Lundberg Internship at the Berg Garden
The William C. Lundberg intern will work with museum staff and volunteers to care for the Berg Garden. Originally planted in 1903, the garden was reestablished through the generosity of Bill and Patsy Lundberg in 2013.

Application Deadline: April 30

Internship runs from May through August
Includes a $500 stipend

 

Jerry & Annette Johns Collections Intern
The goal of the collections internship is to gain hands-on experience in the care, cataloging, and storage of museum artifacts. Working with museum staff, the collections intern will participate in the care of the museum's historic structures and collection of over 6,000 objects.

Application Deadline: July 15

Internship runs from August through early December
Includes a $500 stipend


VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES

Volunteers are an essential part of our team. With your knowledge and passion, we are able to share the history of the museum campus with thousands of visitors each year. Click ‘Become a Volunteer’ to see current opportunities and sign up for an upcoming training session.

Tour Guides

Guides conduct one-hour tours of the Ellwood Mansion and Ellwood-Nehring House for visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Tour guide training is offered twice a year.

Visitor Center

Volunteers in the Visitor Center greet visitors to the museum and act as cashiers at the reception desk and museum shop. Visitor Center training is ongoing and can be scheduled March through November.

Field Trips

The museum offers two tour programs designed specifically for grades 2-5. Field trip volunteers assist staff with delivering these tours for school groups. Training is ongoing and can be scheduled March through November.

Events & Programs

Volunteers assist museum staff in presenting a variety of events and programs throughout the year including concerts, lectures, the Ellwood Summer Festival and the annual holiday event. Training is ongoing and can be scheduled March through November.

For more information, contact Audrey King, by emailing king@ellwoodhouse.org or calling 815-756-4609.

ABOUT THE MUSEUM

The Ellwood House Museum is a historic mansion situated on ten acres of parkland in the heart of DeKalb, Illinois. The museum campus consists of seven historic structures (including the 1879 Ellwood Mansion and 1899 Ellwood-Nehring House), four gardens, and 6,000 square feet of exhibit space in the Patience Ellwood Towle Visitor Center, a converted and expanded 1912 multi-car garage. Originally built for barbed wire entrepreneur Isaac Ellwood, the Mansion was home to three generations of the Ellwood family from 1879 to 1965. In 1965, the Ellwood Mansion was given to the DeKalb Park District by Mrs. May Ellwood and her three children. In 2011, Mrs. Shirley Nehring donated the Ellwood-Nehring House to the non-profit Ellwood House Association. Today the Association operates the entire site as a museum.


MISSION

The mission of the Ellwood House Association is to engage visitors with authentic examples of ingenuity and architecture by sharing the Ellwood mansion, gardens, and museum campus.


CORE VALUES

integrity

Responsibly achieve our goals through historical accuracy and financial sustainability.

stewardship

Preserve and conserve the historic structures, collections, and landscape entrusted to our care.

education

Serve a diverse audience through engaging educational programs, tours, and exhibits. 

excellence

Provide an outstanding visitor experience which fosters a richer appreciation for and exploration of local history and the Ellwood museum campus.


VISION

Our vision is for a dynamic museum campus, deep-rooted in our community, providing connections between the past and today, inspiring creativity, and sharing a sense of wonder.


STAFF & BOARD OF DIRECTORS

STAFF

Donna Gable
Director of Visitor Services
dgable@ellwoodhouse.org

Audrey King
Curator of Education and Interpretation
king@ellwoodhouse.org

Brian Reis
Executive Director
breis@ellwoodhouse.org

Scott Tews
Assistant Director
tews@ellwoodhouse.org

interns

Lee Blocks
William C. Lundberg Intern
at the Berg Garden

Destiny Bons
Resident Intern

Natalie Bradshaw
Selenia Rolfe Towle Teague Education Intern

Kendall Hampton
Resident Intern

Mackenzie Luzin
Resident Intern

Danielle Newman
William C. Lundberg Intern
at the Berg Garden

Ethan Peterman
Jerry & Annette Johns
Collections Intern

Avi Samuels
Interpretation Intern

Cameron Simpson
Tour Guide & Museum Operations Intern

Board of Directors

Kelli Bender

David Castro
Vice President

Timothy Conklin
Treasurer

Thecla Cooler

Mat Emken
DeKalb Park District

Steve Faivre
Director Emeritus

Jerry Johns

Lizbeth Roman
Secretary

Rod Schairer

Carolyn Swafford
Director Emeritus

Amanda Wielgus

Rachel Xidis
President

ABOUT I.L. ELLWOOD

Isaac Leonard Ellwood was born in Salt Springville, New York on August 3, 1833. His parents were people of modest means. Already ambitious as a young man, he drove a mule team on the Erie Canal. In 1851 he made his way west to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California. He clerked in a hardware store in Sacramento and saved his earnings hoping to establish his own business. In 1855, Ellwood made his way to DeKalb County, Illinois, where several of his brothers had already settled. Here he found work on the large farm of William Miller near Kingston. Isaac married Miller’s daughter Harriet in 1859 and soon established a hardware store on Main Street in DeKalb.

Keenly aware of the needs of farmers for a cheap durable fencing material through his hardware business, Ellwood began to tinker with ways to improve fencing. In 1874 he abandoned his own idea and purchased a one-half interest in DeKalb farmer Joseph Glidden’s barbed wire patent for $265. The two soon formed a partnership and established the world’s first barbed wire factory. By 1879, fifty million pounds of barbed wire were being produced annually and Ellwood was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in Illinois. This wealth enabled him to build a palatial home for his family on a large property at the edge of DeKalb.

FENCING FRONTIERS
the barbed wire story

In the 1870s, three men from DeKalb, Illinois began tinkering with an idea for cheap, durable fencing. They were: Joseph F. Glidden, a farmer; Jacob Haish, a lumber dealer; and Isaac L. Ellwood, a hardware merchant. With a simple twist of metal, the lives of these three men and the future of the American West were changed forever.

Joseph Glidden made his first barbed wire in the kitchen of his farmhouse, using a coffee mill to twist the barbs into shape. Working in his barn he then utilized a grindstone to twist two strands of wire together after placing the handmade barbs on one strand of the wire. After making several hundred feet of wire in this manner, he fenced his wife's vegetable garden to keep stray animals out.

Glidden applied for a patent in October 1873; however, it was not granted until November 24, 1874. Meanwhile, Ellwood quickly recognized the superiority of Glidden's concept over his own, and in July 1874 he purchased a one-half interest in Glidden’s yet-to-be issued patent for $265. DeKalb folklore relates that it was Mrs. Ellwood who saw the promise of Glidden’s wire.

Glidden and Ellwood soon formed a partnership called the Barb Fence Company and began the manufacture of barbed wire in DeKalb. In the first year of 1874 only 10,000 lbs. of barbed wire were produced, largely by hand. The following year the company built its first factory with a steam engine and machines to mechanize the barbing of the wire. Output rose dramatically and in 1875 more than 600,000 lbs. were manufactured.

In 1876 Glidden sold the remaining interest in his patent to Washburn & Moen Co., the largest U.S. wire manufacturer, for $60,000 plus royalty rights. Backed by ample capital, the barbed wire business soon began to assume gigantic proportions. According to The DeKalb County Manufacturer, 2,840,000 lbs. of barbed wire were produced in 1876, 12,863,000 lbs. in 1877, 26,655,000 lbs. in 1878, and 50,337,000 lbs. in 1879.

To preserve their monopoly, Washburn & Moen and Isaac Ellwood & Company purchased the rights to many prior and subsequent patents related to barbed wire. Years of litigation followed between the holders of the Glidden patent and other patentholders, including Jacob Haish, over priority in the invention of the first practical barbed wire. In 1892, the United States Supreme Court awarded precedence to Joseph Glidden because of his original claim that the twisting of the two strands of wire holds the barbs in place. The Court declared: "In the law of patents, it is the last step that wins."

Before barbed wire could achieve widespread use throughout the West, it had to be accepted by ranchers and farmers. Sensing that Texas would be the largest single market for the new invention, Ellwood sent the team of Henry Sanborn and J.P. Warner to Houston in 1875 to promote and sell barbed wire. They found Texas seething with controversy between the free grassers, who wanted to maintain the open range, and the nesters, who advocated fields protected by fences. Even those who were in favor of fencing scoffed at the idea that a light-weight barbed wire fence could restrain the wild Texas Longhorn cattle. There was also concern that the sharp barbs would inflict wounds on cattle. If the cuts became infected, the cattle could become diseased and die.

Because of these controversies, Sanborn and Warner failed to sell much barbed wire. This situation changed when a 21-year-old sales-man named John W. Gates was hired by Ellwood. Arriving in Texas, Gates obtained permission to build a barbed wire corral in San Antonio's Military Plaza. He announced that he intended to demonstrate that this fence could contain even the most wild Texas longhorns and offered to take all bets on the outcome. Gates' bravado soon aroused the interest of many cattlemen. When the fenced enclosure was complete, he had wild Longhorn bulls driven into the corral. The animals, aroused by the taunts of the onlookers, were provoked repeatedly to charge the barbed wire. The fences held and Gates soon began to sell barbed wire to the cattlemen by the railcar load.