The prairies of Kansas historically are not plentiful sources of trees or loose stone, fence buildling materials commonly found in other parts of the country. Barbed wire, therefore, is ideally suited to the Plains.
In the 19th century, lumber in large quantities was prohibitively expensive for most consumers to import to Kansas for fencing. How, then, was a pioneer farmer or rancher going to fence in his land? The solution for many settlers was a special kind of wire that could be stretched taut between fence posts to keep predators out, keep livestock in, and to signal to other homesteaders that this land was already taken.
Barbed wire was ideally suited to the wide-open spaces of Kansas lands. It was relatively inexpensive, would not rot, was practically unaffected by fire, was strong and long-lasting, and was easily erected. Introduced in the 1860s, it quickly became widely-used. Between 1875 and 1885, the national consumption of barbed wire jumped from 300 tons to 130,000 tons.
To compete in this popular new business, all inventors had to do was devise different methods of attaching barbs, points, wheels, or blocks to the plain drawn wire that was manufactured in Eastern factories. As long as the design did not infringe on previous patents, inventors stood to make money and a name for themselves.
Hundreds of barbed wire designs have been invented; at least five variations were patented by Kansans in the late nineteenth century. Harbaugh's Torn Ribbon (shown above) was patented June 7, 1881, by Joseph W. Harbaugh of Lawrence, Douglas County. Others include Beerbower's Two Point, patented October 6, 1885, by George Marshall Beerbower of Cherry Vale, Montgomery County; Hyde's Spur Wheel, patented May 8, 1883, by Charles F. Hyde of Ottawa, Franklin County; Raile's Fence Signal, patented August 2, 1887, by Robert E. Raile of Topeka, Shawnee County; and Schlyer's Fence Signal, patented June 25, 1889, by John Schlyer of Hays, Ellis County.
Much of the plain drawn wire used to make barbed wire was manufactured by the Massachusetts firm of Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company. Ichabod Washburn, founder of this firm, was a benefactor and the namesake of Topeka's Washburn University.
During the 1960s, the Lane Myers Company of Protection, Comanche County, Kansas was the leading supplier of concertina entanglement wire used on U. S. Army Engineer installations worldwide. Concertina wire is basically thick, heavy barbed wire. The barbs are close together and the wire is manufactured to curl, making it unsatisfactory for fencing.
The Harbaugh's Torn Ribbon sample, as well as many other sections of barbed wire, are in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Barbed Wire
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 1998
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.