The wide open spaces of the west were more open before the invention of barbed wire. The idea began in 1867 with two inventors adding points to smooth wire and a year later Michael Kelly created the first commercially successful product. The idea took root and soon there were over 570 patents for the thorny product. There would be courtroom battles over patents. More legal battles pitted pro-fence ranchers against free range grazers and trail drivers who feared the end of their way of life. Religious groups and others protested that livestock injuries were the work of the devil. Some called the product “The Devil’s Rope.”
Having done an occasional fence repair I can testify that the wire wriggles like a crazed serpent and can bite like one too.
Nonetheless the product was something steel mills could churn out and that a western rancher could use to economically keep his animals in and the neighbors animals out.
The new invention was the wave of the future though protesters fought back with pliers. At one point laws were passed making fence cutting a felony.
Later uses would be found in the trenches of World War I and at a prison near you.
By 1969 the controversy was over and it was time for the collectors to take the stage. From the March 28, 1969 Telegram-Tribune second section front page:
Big day for barbed wire fans
By Michael Raphael Staff Writer
Prickly, stickly stuff, is barbed wire. And it comes in lots of forms, more that you’d realize.
If you’d like to see many of the 400 varieties, drop by the county fairgrounds in Paso Robles between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday. That’s where the California Barbed Wire Collectors Association is staging its first ever convention.
At the Industrial Building you’ll be able to see the collections of the 30 members of the state’s only association of the collectors of thorny wire, and it is a free show.
San Luis Obispo County boasts two charter members of the association that established itself in Fresno only two months ago.
— M.L. (Bud) Park, Southern Pacific railroad assistant trainmaster, and Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce manager Swift Jewell.
Park has 103 types of wire, each sample 18 inches long and wired to plywood display boards.
It will be at the show. Some collectors will have as many as 200 different samples in a single collection.
Park started collecting four years ago, when he found a piece of wire called Crandal’s Champion “Ric-rak” near the railway depot in Surf, near Lompoc.
Park picked up one unusual piece of wire in Octavia, an Arizona ghost town, and a J. Haish’s Original “S” near a Los Osos Valley Cemetery not far from his Laguna Lake home.
Collectors identify the wire by the man who obtained the original patent on it, the date of the patent and the nickname, if any.
The oldest wire, by patent date, in Park’s collection is the M. Kelly “Diamond Point,” dated Feb. 11, 1868.
More than half the samples were collected between Oxnard and Soledad, and most of the rest were obtained by trades with collectors in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada and other parts of the state.
The big barbed wire boom was during the 1870s when such wire was given as the cause of range wars.
Today there are a small number of manufacturers of barbed wire. Most of the samples in the collections are estimated to be several decades old.
Park found much of his collection in farmer’s dumps and by keeping a watchful eye on ranch fences, as he and his wife Phyllis, took Sunday drives.
“Some people think we’re nuts when we ask to see their fences,” Park said. “Farmers don’t concern themselves with the variety of wires available, just its strength and resistance to rust,” he said.
Park also has World War I entanglement wires, U.S. and German versions, and said he noticed that the American variety is in use on the Vandenberg Air Force Base perimeter.
Barbed wire comes in one to four strands normally, can be square, ribbon or oval shaped, and have any variety and number of barbs. In some cases, points pieces are added by hand to standard wire already strung.