Collectors wired for the barbs that won the West

As a collectible, barbed wire has everything it needs - a wire guru, annual conventions and a special kind of wire that is the crown jewel of every collection, the coveted Dodge Star. But recent wildfires in Texas have threatened the supply of collectible antique wire.

When the attendees of the annual barbed wire show at the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum in McLean, Texas, start telling stories, Davie Gipson says she usually finds something else to do rather than listen.

“They just try to outdo each other at these shows, telling stories about just about anything,” said Gibson, manager and curator of the museum for 14 years. “Maybe he found the wire in a canyon, or maybe he cut the wire from a fence.” Snipping barbed wire from a fence is usually illegal, and makes for a particularly juicy story.

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Two huge balls of barbed wire mark the entrance to the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Tx. The museum is home to thousands of specimens and is a mecca for barbed wire collectors. (Photo by Brian Bennett)

Even among clubs like the Air Horn and Steam Whistle Enthusiasts, the Ocular Heritage Society (they collect antique glasses and ophthalmologists’ tools), and the American Cookie Jar Association, barbed wire must certainly rank high in the annals of unusual collectibles. There are six state associations in the United States for people who find beauty in the sharp-edged spools of wire that were once strung across millions of acres of land, and each hosts its own yearly barbed wire show. There are more than 2,000 varieties of the stuff, and the rarest can fetch nearly $1,000 for an 18-inch strand.

The Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum, one of two barbed wire museums, has roughly 1,300 different types of barbed wire on display, according to estimates by Gipson, manager and curator of the museum for the last 14 years. Initially, Gipson volunteered at the barbed wire museum because her husband was an avid collector, but after his death she stayed on, enjoying the company the museum provided.

“Why, we have a lot of good stuff,” she said. “We have barbed wire. We have fencing tools.”

A rival museum, the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, the self-proclaimed Barbed Wire Capital of the World, boasts more than 2,000 wires on display, though Gipson believes some of these wires to be repeats. The museum closes for the winter and could not be reached.

The Barbed Wire Identification Encyclopedia is the primary resource for collectors, and Harold L. Hagemeier, an author and former chairman of the Antique Barbed Wire Society, updates it whenever a new wire is discovered. A collector himself, Hagemeier became interested in collecting when a rancher friend gave him five or six pieces of wire from his land.

“After I got about 15 or 20 wires, I thought, well, that’s probably most of them,” he said. “I found out really quick that I just didn’t have any idea.”

Rare wires, especially, can be valuable.

“Well, of course the Dodge Star is the one everybody would like to have a whole roll of!” said Gipson. A whole role of barbed wire is 1,320 feet long when unrolled, and more than long enough to fence the perimeter of a football field.

Coveted by collectors, Dodge Star wire is rare and has an unusual design - it is adorned with sharp stars cut from sheet metal - and typically goes for about $300 per 18-inch segment, the length generally required for a wire to be considered collectible. Wire collections are mounted on plywood for display, and long pieces of wire make these quite heavy, so collectors have recently allowed so-called shortie wires, which are only 4 1/2 inches long.

Hagemeier’s collection of rare wires includes a strand of Cocklebur wire, featuring metal balls with little points on them, just like the prickly weed of the same name. Very rare and once made in a prison in Iowa, 18 inches of Cocklebur wire would fetch roughly $900 at a wire show, according to Hagemeier’s estimate.

“That’s really got to be the trend right now - specializing in rare wires,” said Hagemeier.

Most collectible barbed wire comes from old fences, but recent wildfires in Texas have destroyed old wire fences, making the wire weak and useless to collectors. New fences are built with wires too common to be collectible.

One of the most common wires, Glidden’s Winner, is named for barbed wire’s inventor, Joseph Glidden, and the 1874 court case in which he defended his patent, and won.

Common wires like Glidden’s Winner were once considered collectible, but today’s collectors focus more on obscure wires to distinguish their collections.

Barbed wire’s glory days were the mid-19th century, and its pioneers made fortunes on it.

A hero in barbed wire lore, John Warne Gates, better known as “Bet-A-Million” Gates, was one of barbed wire’s luminaries.

In 1876, Gates bet a group in San Antonio that he could build a wire pen on the grounds of the Alamo that could contain a group of longhorn cattle. Fencing materials were scarce in Texas and cattle usually roamed freely - the ability to fence them in pens would provide a great benefit to ranchers seeking to keep track of their longhorns.

Gates’ product, a type of barbed wire he brought with him from Illinois, the birthplace of barbed wire, met the challenge, and he became a millionaire overnight, according to the legend.

Barbed wire made its greatest impact in Texas, where nature offered little from which ranchers could build cattle pens, but it was first developed in Illinois.

Gerald Brauer is the executive director of Ellwood House, a Victoria mansion in DeKalb, Ill., that was once home to Isaac Ellwood, one of DeKalb’s millionaire barbed wire barons.

The museum also houses a 200-specimen barbed wire exhibit, “Fencing Frontiers: The Barbed Wire Story,” that ells the history of barbed wire,and explains how valuable it was to settlers needing to pen livestock and keep unwanted animals off their property.

The architecture and authentic furnishings of the Ellwood House tend to attract more interest than the barbed wire exhibit, says Brauer.

“We have to remind people that it’s there,” he said, and that “it’s kind of interesting.”