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.

The museum is now closed for the season. Please visit us in March 2017.



509 North First Street
DeKalb, IL 60115
Entrance to the Ellwood House Visitor Center and parking area can be reached by traveling west on Augusta Avenue to Linden Place.
Contact us


Our regular tour season runs March 1 through November 30. Our special holiday event is offered the first weekend of December.
Monday: Closed
Tuesday Sunday: 12:30 4:30PM
See VISIT for guided tour schedule.
See RENTALS for information on booking your event
at one of our available venues.


We offer guided tours of both the Ellwood Mansion and the Ellwood-Nehring House. All guided tours start inside the Visitor Center, where tickets may be purchased. Our regular tour season begins on March 1 and ends on November 30. See LEARN for more information about educational programming and school visits.

The Visitor Center contains three exhibit galleries, which are free and open to the public daily 12:30 – 4:30 P.M. from March 1 through November 30 (closed Mondays and major holidays). See RENTALS for information on booking your event at one of our available venues.

Tickets for guided tours are purchased at the Visitor Center. All guided tours start from the Visitor Center.



Adults – $8
Youth ages 6-17 – $3
Children under 6 – Free
Members – Free (see information on memberships)


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

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


A guided tour of the first floor levels of both the Ellwood-Nehring House and the mansion. Offered Fridays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Highlights tours take approximately 60 minutes. 

Friday – 2:00PM
Saturday – 2:00PM


Tours for groups of ten or more may be scheduled in advance. Please call 815-756-4609 for reservations.

Holiday decorated mansion tours

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

November 15-30

Holiday Open House Weekend

Friday, December 2 – 7:00–8:30PM
Saturday, December 3 – 1:00–4:30PM
Sunday, December 4 – 1:00–4:30PM

Holiday Open House Cost

Adults – $10
Youth ages 6-17 – $5
Under 6 – Free


Situated on a ten-acre estate, the Ellwood House Museum and Park 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 both Harriet Ellwood and her 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 investigated seven days a week without a tour guide.

Photography & Video Policy 

Interior photography is prohibited everywhere except the Visitor Center.


Entrance to the Ellwood House Museum Visitor Center and parking lot can be reached by traveling west on Augusta Avenue to Linden Place.

See the home page for an area map, or find directions at google



ellwood explorers

Ellwood Explorers is a series of family programs offered each summer between the months of June and August.

Most of the programs are designed for ages six and up and focus on history, art, architecture, and nature.

Ellwood Explorers takes place whether it's rain or shine! All outdoor programs will be moved into the Visitor Center incase of bad weather. For more information please call the museum at 815-756-4609 or email Tricia Runzel,
Curator of Education and Interpretation at trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org.


Spend the afternoon celebrating the 125 th birthday of everyone’s favorite playhouse, the 1891 Little House. Lean about nineteenth century toys and games and try out historic reproductions. Bring a lunch and enjoy it under a shady tree on the grounds of scenic Ellwood Park. All ages are welcome.

What is a Plant?
Wednesday, July 20, 11:00am
Location: Ellwood House grounds
Presented by the Midwest Museum of Natural History

Join an educator from the Midwest Museum of Natural History and explore the exciting world of plants. Learn the parts of a plant and make a fun craft to take home. This program supports MMNH's temporary exhibit "The Greener Side.” All ages are welcome. $5 per child


Countries of Curiosity
Saturday, June 4, 11:00am
Location: Lawn around the Curiosity Shop

Pack your steamer trunk! Travel the world with the Ellwoods and learn about the exciting souvenirs Harriet Ellwood collected for her Curiosity Shop. Then, stop in a country Harriet never saw and create some souvenirs for your own collection. All ages welcome.

Summer Selections
Friday, June 24, 11:00am
Location: Ellwood-Nehring House
Presented by Friends of the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic, N.I.U.

Gather in the living room of the Ellwood-Nehring House to hear the reading of bestselling picture book, Home by Carson Ellis. After the story, create related arts and crafts and enjoy a snack. Ages 2 and up with parent and/or guardian.





Did you know that electricity and telephones were new technology for the Ellwoods? Spend the afternoon exploring the Ellwood Mansion for examples of these early technologies. Then share with museum staff what you found. All ages are welcome.

creatures & creations

Find many hidden animals within the architecture and ornate detailing of the Ellwood House, then come to the Visitor Center
for an art project based on what you saw!

Have you heard there are animals in the Ellwood House?
If you take your time and look closely you can find lions, dragons, sea creatures, and other creatures carved into wood, painted on canvas, and hidden where you least expect them.

After your hunt
Head to the Visitor Center to create your own take-home art project!


$5 per person (family program developed for ages 6 and up)


This one-hour program will be offered this summer but may also be booked as a private tour for groups of six or more. For more information or to schedule this tour, call Tricia Runzel at 815-756-4609 or email to trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org.


At the root of our tours and programs is an emphasis on the story of the Ellwood House, the history of the Ellwood family, their barbed wire business, and the exploration of our collective history.


School field trips are free of charge.

Group Size

The maximum group size we can accommodate is 45 students. If you would like to bring more than 45 students, please book them in two groups in back to back sessions, or in two groups on two separate days.


We appreciate chaperones, but we ask that you limit parent chaperones to 2 adults per visit. This number, of course, does not include teachers and staff.


We prefer to host field trips in the morning and can begin as early as 9:00AM. School tours are available Tuesday through Friday. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Food & Drink

Bagged lunches can be brought with you and eaten on the grounds. The visitor center meeting room may be available as a backup in case of inclement weather. Please contact our office about using the meeting room.

Special Programming

Ellwood House offers programs and tours for grades 2nd through 5th. For more information, please call Tricia Runzel at 815-756-4609 or email trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org.

hard work

Servants & the Daily Routine

Learn to properly set the dining room table, churn butter, change a diaper and more. You better learn your jobs quickly & efficiently, as there is no room for error when you are a servant.

4th and 5th Grade Program

Students see and feel what life was like for those individuals who worked for the Ellwood family. Try out jobs done by Ellwood House staff. Learn to properly set the dining room table, churn butter, change a diaper and more. Tour the Ellwood House's interesting work areas in the basement and view the staff living quarters on multiple levels of the mansion.

The purpose of this program

To familiarize students with differences in lifestyle between the Ellwood family and their working class servants/staff. Students will gain an appreciation for the complexity and physicality of working at 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 is 1 hour and 30 minutes. 45 students max per group visit. Please call our office 815-756-4609 or email Tricia Runzel at trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org for more information or to book this program.

history detectives

Become a detective! Be assigned a lead investigator who will walk you through the Ellwood Mansion and guide you on your
fact-finding mission.

2nd and 3rd Grade Program

Students have the opportunity to examine historic photographs and objects within the mansion to discover what families did for fun one hundred years ago. Tour the Ellwood House to see significant pieces of family history passed down through multiple generations.

The purpose of this program

To introduce students to Isaac Ellwood and the barbed wire industry in DeKalb, explaining why the mansion exists today and why Isaac Ellwood was important. Introducing students to historic photographs and artifacts in order to seek out answers to historical questions. Touring the mansion to gain a greater understanding of historic pastimes, hobbies, and entertainment through the examination of the historic house and artifacts. Students will recognize how the pastimes of the past relate to their lives today.

Program Logistics

The program is 1 hour and 30 minutes. 45 students max per group visit. Please call our office 815-756-4609 or email Tricia Runzel at trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org for more information or to book this program.


Presented by the Ellwood House Museum and Gurler Heritage Association 2016 Adult Lecture Series

Local Lore is a series of adult lecture programs. Once a month, a knowledgeable speaker will present an hour-long program about history relevant to DeKalb County. All programs are free of charge and take place in the Ellwood House Museum Visitor Center unless otherwise stated. For more information, call (815) 756-4609 or email trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org.



The Gurler Heritage Association will present a history of the Gurler House during the early settlement and growth of DeKalb, its passage to the Gurler Family and eventually to the GHA in the 1970's. Learn about the touch-and-go story of the original group of citizens who saved the home from demolition and the mission of the Gurler Heritage Association to maintain the house as a community meeting space and host of cultural events, highlighting activities enjoyed in the house and on the lawn through the years and into the future.

Ellwood-Nehring House Restoration: 2016 Update
Saturday, September 17th at 6:00pm
Speaker: Brian Reis, Ellwood House Museum

Join Ellwood House Museum’s executive director for an update on the restoration work being done at the Ellwood-Nehring House. This behind-the-scenes look at historic restoration will be a treat for anyone interested in historic preservation, architecture, or the beautiful Ellwood-Nehring building. Lecture takes place inside the Ellwood-Nehring House.

DeKalb’s Historic Cemeteries
Thursday, October 13th, doors open at 11:30
Speaker: Steve Bigolin

Just in time for Halloween, local historian Steve Bigolin will share his knowledge of the DeKalb cemeteries, including Oakwood, Pleasant Street, Evergreen, St. Mary’s, and Fairview. Join us for this fascinating lecture about the history and preservation of these landmarks. All participants are encouraged to bring a sack lunch.

A Victorian Christmas
Thursday, November 17th, doors open at 11:30am
Speaker: Tricia Runzel, Ellwood House Museum

From Christmas trees to Santa Claus, Christmas as we know it is a result of the Victorian era. Just in time for the opening of the decorated Ellwood Mansion, this lecture will explore how our Christmas traditions became popular. All participants are encouraged to bring a sack lunch.

Heirlooms for the Garden
Friday, May 27th, doors open at 11:30am
Speaker: Tari Rowland, Midway Village Museum

Bring a little history to your garden! Garden historian Tari Rowland will discuss unique and interesting varieties of heirloom vegetables and flowers for gardeners (like May Ellwood!) who don’t want a cookie cutter plan. This lecture will include information about ten varieties of vegetables and ten varieties of flowers that would make great additions to modern gardens. All participants are encouraged to bring a sack lunch.

Bringing the Little House Back to Life
Friday, June 17th, 6:00pm
Speaker: Roger Keys

From contractor’s float to children’s playhouse, the Little House has played many roles in the history of DeKalb. Join restoration specialist, Roger Keys for a fascinating talk about the Little House’s history and Roger’s recent efforts to revitalize the structure. The Little House will be opened for viewing after this program.

Establishing the Lincoln Highway
and Charitable Giving in Illinois

Friday, July 15th, doors open at 11:30am
Speaker: Kay Shelton

In partnership with the Illinois Humanities Road Scholar Speakers Bureau

The Lincoln Highway, the world’s longest memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, was the first improved coast-to-coast road in the United States. Begun in 1913 by leaders in the early automobile industry as a way to promote paved roads to potential automobile owners, it soon became an important part of American history. In this lecture, Road Scholar Speaker Kay Shelton will explore the many facets of Lincoln Highway’s significance to the histories of Illinois and the United States. All participants are encouraged to bring a sack lunch.

EVENTS in 2017

The Ellwood House Museum presents three major special events annually: The Ice Cream Social, Wine on the Terrace, and Holiday Traditions.



Kick off your holidays with a tour of the elegantly decorated mansion between November 15 and November 30, or join us for our Holiday Open House weekend December 1 – 3.


Every November, the Ellwood House Museum partners with area businesses, community sponsors, and volunteers to decorate the mansion room-by-room on all four floors. From November 15-30, our guided holiday tours give visitors the opportunity to see the mansion in a new light. 

At the end of our regular tour season, we open the doors for a three-day Holiday Open House weekend. Visitors may purchase tickets in advance in our Visitor Center or on our website starting September 1. Pre-purchased tickets may be presented at the front door of the mansion.

Volunteers will be stationed in each room, presenting the history of the Ellwood House and sharing information about the two generations of Ellwood family members who called Ellwood House home.

Decorated Mansion Tours

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

November 15-30
Closed Thanksgiving day


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

Holiday Open House Events

Friday, December 2  7:00-9:00PM*
Saturday, December 3 – 1:00-5:00PM*
Sunday, December 4  1:00-5:00PM*

*Last tickets sold 30 mins. before closing


Adults – $10
Youth ages 6-17  $5
Children under 6  Free
Members  Free (membership information


Thursday, December 1  4:00-7:00PM

All members are invited to a special preview of the decorated mansion. See JOIN & GIVE for more information about becoming a member.

Major sponsorship provided by FIRST NATIONAL BANK.  

Major sponsorship provided by FIRST NATIONAL BANK.



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Wine on the Terrace

Saturday, September 16, 2017

4 pm - 7 pm

The Ellwood House terraces and gardens provide an elegant setting for an evening of wines, excellent appetizers, and music. This major fundraiser has become an eagerly anticipated community event.


ld be purchased in advance. Tickets will go on sale July 1. Only 200 tickets will be available, so don’t miss this great opportunity to experience wonderful food and wine in the incomparable setting of the Ellwood House Museum and Park.


Wine on the Terrace is generously sponsored by Resource Bank.

Wine on the Terrace is generously sponsored
by Resource Bank.


Thecla and Richard Cooler

Ron Klein





Mark Rottler

 Ryan D. Genz, Edward Jones

 Ryan D. Genz, Edward Jones

Wine on the Terrace Frequently Asked Questions

Will I leave the event hungry?
Inboden’s comes prepared with a wide variety of gourmet, savory and sweet offerings. They work with us on a custom menu that is sure to please.

Are bottles of wine available to purchase?
Inboden’s staff will assist you in filling out order sheets provided within the event program. There is no pressure to buy anything beyond your admission ticket, but if you sample a wine that you want to add to your personal cellar, simply fill out the order form.

How does the silent auction work?
You may sign up for a bid number by listing your name and telephone number. Once you have your unique bid number, you may bid on the silent auction items. 

What is the suggested attire?
Business casual.

What time should I/we arrive?
The event is run as an open house, with admittance anytime between 4 pm and 7pm. We recommend arriving by 5:30 pm to get the most value from your ticket. 

What if it rains?
We have a back-up plan that includes using both levels of the Visitor Center, including the exhibit galleries.



sunday, august 6, 2017 10:00am - 4:00pm

Enjoy a day of fun with art, music, and good food on the grounds of the Ellwood House Museum. The day will feature 20 artist booths, first floor tours of the Ellwood Mansion and Ellwood-Nehring House, music by the DeKalb Municipal Band, educational programming, delicious ice cream, and more.



The Ellwood House 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.


Space Rental  $350.00/hour
Interior Photography Sessions  $150.00/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.


-On-site staff person
-Set up of tables and chairs
-Trash removal

Table linens and decorations are not provided.


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



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 times

Available from March-June and September-November.

Closed Monday
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday  9:00AM to 9:00PM
Friday, Saturday*  9:00AM to 11:00PM
Sunday  9:00AM to 9:00PM

*Friday and Saturday rentals must accommodate building tours at 2:00PM

Interior photography

Photography sessions can be scheduled Tuesday-Sunday by appointment.


For more information about our available rental facilities, contact Donna Gable, Director of Visitor Services by e-mailing dgable@ellwoodhouse.org.

grounds & gardens

Since 1967, the Ellwood House site has been a memorable setting for outdoor wedding ceremonies.


-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 outdoor rentals. 


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



Rental Information  

-Space available for parties of up to 80
-Weather alternative space available for garden rentals
-Views of the Mansion and 4 distinct gardens on 10 acres

Rental Times

Available from May 15 to October 15.

Outdoor/wedding garden events may be scheduled before 12:00PM or after 5:00PM. Outdoor/wedding garden events may not be scheduled between 12:00-5:00PM.


Garden Wedding Ceremony   $500.00

Discounts available for use of multiple facilities on the same date.


For more information about our available rental facilities, 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.


Rates differ by time of day required for a reservation.

Tuesday-Friday 8:00AM-5:00PM – $50.00/hour
Tuesday-Friday 5:00-11:00PM – $75.00/hour
Saturday & Sunday 8:00AM-12:00PM – $75.00/hour
Saturday & Sunday 12:00-5:00PM – $50.00/hour
Saturday & Sunday 5:00-11:00PM – $75.00/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.


-On-site staff person
-Setup of tables and chairs
-Trash removal

Table linens and decorations are not provided.


Alcohol cannot be served. Any caterer can be used.


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
-Maximum capacity: 80 (reception, banquet or theater style)
-Building and restrooms meet ADA standards
-Fully equipped kitchen
-Located on the first floor of our two-story visitor center, open to the public

Rental Times

Available from March 1 to November 15.

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







For more information about our available rental facilities, contact Donna Gable, Director of Visitor Services by e-mailing dgable@ellwoodhouse.org.



Ellwood House Museum members enjoy a full year of exclusive benefits and experiences including special events, programs, discounts, 
and more, all while providing crucial support for the museum's programming and exhibitions.

Museum Member Benefits

Members also have the satisfaction of knowing they help support the many free programs & exhibits of the Ellwood House Museum and the preservation and ongoing restoration of the historic Ellwood and Ellwood-Nehring Houses.


-Free tour admission to the Ellwood House and Ellwood-Nehring House for one year
Invitations to special members only functions, such as the annual Holiday Members' Night, garden party, and more
-"Ellwood House Herald" quarterly newsletter
-10% off items in the Museum Shop 


Purchase or renew your Ellwood House Museum membership at our online marketplace
For more information about memberships, contact:




The Ellwood House Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization which relies on the combined generosity of visitors and supporters to engage visitors with authentic example of ingenuity and architecture by sharing the Ellwood mansion, gardens, and museum campus.

Your Contribution

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 exhibition.

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, and tree care, mowing, and snow removal of Ellwood Park. The remainder of funds needed for restoration, collections, research, and to operate the museum must be raised from a variety of sources.


For more information, contact:

Brian Reis
Executive Director



Ellwood House Museum needs your help! Volunteers are an essential part of our team. With your skills, knowledge, and passion we are able to share the exciting history of DeKalb with our visitors. 


Field Trips

Assist with education programs

Visitor Center

Greet visitors, act as cashier


Public Tours

Provide daily tours of the Ellwood Mansion and the Ellwood-Nehring House

Special Events

Provide support during our special events, including the Holiday Open House and the Ice Cream Social

If you’re interested, complete the volunteer application below and we’ll get back to you to set up a time to meet.

Name *
Duties You're Interested In *

For more information, contact Tricia Runzel at trunzel@ellwoodhouse.org or call 815-756-4609


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.

Given to the DeKalb Park District in 1965 by Mrs. Erwin Perry Ellwood and her three children, the property is operated as a museum
by the not-for-profit Ellwood House Association.

The story of the Ellwood House reflects the central role of Isaac Ellwood in the development of the barbed wire industry in America. The magnificent estate is also a testimony to three generations of the Ellwood family whose tastes shaped the evolution of the house and grounds.

As you visit the Ellwood House you will be aware of the comfort and quality of workmanship that wealth could provide. At the same time,
you also sense the warmth and hospitality of a family home that was lived in for almost one hundred years.

core values



Responsibly achieve our goals through historical accuracy and financial sustainability.


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


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


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


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.


our staff

Board of Directors

Kelli Bender

David Castro

Timothy Conklin, Treasurer

Thecla Cooler

John Diedrich

Mat Emken, DeKalb Park District

Jerry Johns, President

Lizbeth Roman

Carolyn Swafford, Secretary

Amanda Wielgus

Rachel Xidis, Vice President

Donna Gable
Director of Visitor Services

Brian Reis
Executive Director

Tricia Runzel
Curator of Education and Interpretation

Scott Tews
Public Programs & Development Manager









Our Interns

William "Buddy" Avila
Historic Site Caretaker

Agnes Ma
Curatorial Assistant

Jacob van Loon
Design & Marketing Assistant


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.

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.

the barbed wire story

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 patents 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.

Glidden, Haish and Ellwood soon began to think about improvements to Rose’s crude invention and within two years each of the men had obtained his own patent. 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. Ellwood quickly recognized the superiority of Glidden's concept, 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 propor-tions. 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.