Most people may not know it, but Illinois has made an important contribution to barbed wire history. Although different people had been working on barbed wire during the mid-nineteenth century, it was not until 1874 that developments really skyrocketed in DeKalb, Illinois.
According to my tour guide at the Joseph F. Glidden Homestead in DeKalb, Illinois, when three DeKalb farmers visited a local fair, each man was individually inspired to perfect a fence that was on display there. The fence at the fair was wooden with metal spikes sticking out of it. Its purpose was to keep cattle away from the crops. At first, the three men started working on a better fence, unbeknownst to the other, but once they learned about each other, competition began.
One of the farmers was Joseph F. Glidden. He was from New Hampshire, but made his way west to Illinois, which was then frontier land. The other farmer was Jacob Haish, an immigrant from Germany. The third, who was also the youngest, was from New York and named Isaac L. Ellwood. According to my tour guide, Ellwood’s wife told him that Glidden’s wire was better than his, so he ended up partnering with Glidden, and did the promoting for him. Glidden ended up receiving the patent for his wire in 1874, and created a machine that allowed it to be made quickly. Despite Glidden’s official recognition as the creator of the barbed wire design we use today, until his death, Haish continued to contest him.
Today, you can have tours of both Glidden’s and Ellwood’s homes, which are where you can also learn about the history of barbed wire. Unfortunately, Haish’s mansion was eventually torn down, so it is no longer standing. However, you can see furniture from his mansion in the Ellwood Mansion visitor center’s museum.
The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead is located next to Northern Illinois University, which is a state school. This is no coincidence, since Glidden donated his land for the creation of the school. Haish ended up donating money to create the university’s library, as well as to create the DeKalb Public Library. Ellwood also contributed money to start the university, and built the university president’s house.
The Glidden Homestead is only open for tours on Tuesdays and approximately one Sunday a month. The tour guide is a knowledgeable historian, who spends a lot of time discussing the history of barbed wire, in addition to the history of Glidden himself. Although the home was undoubtedly surrounded by farmland in the past, it is now along a busy street, so is easy to miss when getting to it. Here is the home’s website: http://www.gliddenhomestead.org/index.html
Ellwood’s mansion is not too far away from Glidden’s, and also offers tours. However, the tours are offered more regularly than they are at Glidden’s home. Additionally, the tours have a stronger focus on the home itself, because it is a significantly larger one than Glidden’s. According to my Glidden Homestead tour guide, this is not because Glidden made less money from his barbed wire patent, but because Glidden used his money to work on tinkering with other inventions, rather than on using the money for himself. Here is the website for Ellwood’s mansion: http://www.ellwoodhouse.org
I am not sure if all of the tour guides for the Ellwood mansion do this, but my tour guide also took my tour group inside a mini playhouse that Ellwood’s kids used. Built in 1891, it was like walking inside a little dollhouse.
Located approximately 60 miles west of Chicago, DeKalb is worth a visit if you want to learn more about the history of barbed wire. For what may have seemed like a small, practical invention for farmers, it certainly caught on internationally, and took on many uses.
Sources and Further Reading
Ellwood House Museum. http://www.ellwoodhouse.org/ (accessed October 26, 2019).
John F. Glidden Homestead and Historical Center. http://www.gliddenhomestead.org/homestead/history.html (accessed October 26, 2019).