Barbed wire may be small, but its impact on the American West is undeniable. 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.