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The Wire That Tamed the West

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

--as published in The Asheville Citizen Times. August 18, 2018



If you've ever had the pleasant experience of off-trail hiking through deep Laurel thickets, grabby Doghobble vines or thorny Blackberry underbrush—all common obstacles of bushwhacking in the Carolina mountains—then you've likely had the equally pleasant experience of stumbling blindly into a barbed wire fence.


Wiping the blood from your gouged arm or leg, you probably exclaimed something like, "What in tarnation is a bob-wire fence doing in the middle of the woods?!”


Good question. Let’s talk about that.


Erroneously, and anthropomorphically, referred to as "bob-wire", or "bobbed-wire," most find little gratification in getting snagged by these fanged fences. They rip clothing, snare hair, gouge flesh, make cattle moo and wreak general discomfort on all things larger-than-a-house-cat.



Behind these simple pain inflicting demographics, lies a wonderfully intriguing slice of the American west, which—post-by-post, roll-by-roll—found it's way back east, eventually back to North Carolina.


 

Our story begins with Texas and a beloved icon of our somewhat mythical past. Derogatorily referred to as cow-boys, these young men, averaging between the ages of 16 to 25, signed-on with a trail boss to herd cows (more correctly, long horn steers) to market.


A long-legged, jumbo-horned, heartier version of our modern-day beef cattle, cowboys pushed millions of these Texas-born, Spanish-bred, wild-eyed investments towards Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, usually doubling or tripling the herd-owners speculations by the time they were sold-off or shipped back east.


John Wayne and his trusty Winchester

Crowded into the 1870's and 1880's these 24/7, mosey-on-along, river-crossin’, stampedin’, Indian-fightin’, cattle-rustlin’, gun-slingin’, card-playin’ cow-punchin’ treks—covering hundreds of miles and lasting for months—later produced the theatrical likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Matt Dillion (mythical characters that sort-of blatantly exaggerated the lives of real cowboys).


Back in the late 1870’s, these expansive wrangling expeditions also produced conflict with local ranchers and farmers, who often found their free-range homesteads trampled and denuded of vegetation by king-sized herds of cattle. Tensions were building.


Meanwhile, back in Illinois, Joseph Glidden and Isaac Ellwood were tweaking an 1860 French invention. Designed to discourage animals from foraging in grandma’s garden, a Frenchman had attached a series of sharp pointy wires to wooden fence rails to accomplish the job. Although it worked fairly well, it still involved building a wooden fence. Glidden and Elwood toyed with the idea of weaving barbed metallic wires between long twisted strands of wire cable, which were then attached to posts to form a pain-inducing fence. Obtaining a patent in 1873, the two formed the Barb Fence Company.


Initially marketing their product to small farmers in Illinois—describing it as, "lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust”—the company eventually purchased a ranch in Texas, filled it with cattle and encased it in barbed wire. The neighbors, noticing the sudden absence of stampedes, stray-cattle roundups, cattle-thieving and hopping-mad farmers, decided to try it themselves. Thereafter, barbed wire sales shifted into high gear (by 1890, there were 150-companies manufacturing barbed wire fencing).


As the concept spread north from Texas, so did barbed wire. And before you can say, “Ouch, that wire is unquestionably sharp”, barbed wire had tamed the west; huge swaths of land had been fenced, cattle kingdoms were born, the “Fence Cutting War” and “Free Range War” had commenced, and the gutsy, mustang-busting American icon—and the cattle drive—had appeared and disappeared in the span of 20-years.


 

Standing atop Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina’s highest peak, one can hardly imagine that these spectacular wooded vistas were once stripped of vegetation. In the early 1900’s, logging companies were hauling out 50-railroad cars of lumber a day from the Black Mountains. So intense and indiscreet was the felling, railroad tracks—and loggers—came within 1/2 mile of the lofty peak.


If one were to peer out from Mt. Mitchell in those days, it would have most-likely resembled Hiroshima, a holocaust of clear-cutting, erosion and death. So devastating were these enterprising developments, the Asheville Citizen (as reported by Alan Anderson), “…confessed to being torn between a sense of development and progress and growing feelings of alarm and shame.” The writer might have added, “… but the cattle like it.”


As loggers, homesteaders, furniture factories and fires stripped the forest of trees, a growing feeling of preservation eventually prevailed, but the damage had been done. Now there were mountain pastures far and wide. Pastures that offered free meals.


Not unlike the cattle kings of the west—who taught the rest of the world how to protect your investments—North Carolina’s farmers and ranchers began fencing anything that slightly resembled a pasture, often installing “bob-wire” across steep slopes, along ridge lines and river beds, routinely ignoring who owned the seemingly endless supply of remote, eatable land.


Barbed wire - just waiting to snare the next victim.

Of course, things change. Trees grow back, National Forests are designated, land is surveyed and sold. But the barbed wire—not so fun to remove, and amazingly hearty—remained.


Today, embedded in trees, weaving through the thickest beds of rhododendron, casting it’s slim, metallic shadow on mountain ridges and gouging your favorite fleece jacket, barbed wire reminds us of days—and cattle—gone by.


So the next time you find yourself attached to a rusty old “bob-wire”, put the brakes on that cursing and pause to reflect. You just got jabbed by “the wire that tamed the west.”


--Ben Fortson


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