DeKalb, Illinois and Barbed Wire

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.

This photo was taken at the Ellwood mansion, and depicts Glidden, Ellwood, and Haish, respectively, as well as the spiky wooden fence that inspired the men to create barbed wire.

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

The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead at 921 W. Lincoln Hwy, DeKalb, IL 60115

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

The Isaac L. Ellwood mansion at 509 N. 1st St, DeKalb, IL 60115

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.

This is the 1891 children’s playhouse on the grounds of Ellwood’s mansion.

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).

5 Historically Noteworthy Homes in the Chicago Area

Even though museums, libraries, archives, etc. are currently closed throughout the majority of the world because of the Coronavirus, there are other ways to still visit historic places.  Here are 5 historically noteworthy homes that are never open to the public anyway, but that you can drive and see from the outside if you are in the Chicago area. By no means is this a comprehensive list.

1. Michael Jordan’s Home

2700 Point Dr., Highland Park, IL 60035

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, lived in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago, when he played basketball for the Chicago Bulls.  He lived there from 1995 to 2006.  Since 2012, his house has been on the market.  It was originally on the market for $29 million.  However, the price has been reduced, so if you have $14,855,000, you can try purchasing it.  The home includes an indoor basketball court, gym, and swimming pool.  If not, you can at least drive past the home and admire the gate, which still has the number 23 on it (Michael Jordan’s jersey number).  Unfortunately, you will not have much success catching a glimpse of the house, because it is hidden behind evergreen trees. As of March, 2020, the home is currently listed on Zillow: https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2700-Point-Dr-Highland-Park-IL-60035/4902463_zpid/

2. Home Alone House

671 Lincoln Ave., Winnetka, IL 60093

The 1990 film Home Alone has now become a Christmas classic.  Except for the upstairs scenes, which were recreated in a gymnasium, a home in Winnetka, Illinois (another northern suburb of Chicago), was the set for a large portion of the film.  It is now a private home, and the only one in the neighborhood with a “No Trespassing” sign.  You can see other parts of Winnetka in the film, as well as buildings from the neighboring suburbs of Wilmette and Highland Park.  This is because the film’s writer and producer, John Hughes, grew up in Northbrook, Illinois, which is nearby, making him familiar with Chicago’s suburbs.  Hughes used the northern Chicago suburbs as settings for several of his other films as well, such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).  Hughes is buried in the northern suburb of Lake Forest.

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald-Inspired Home

210 South Ridge Rd., Lake Forest, IL 60045

Speaking of Lake Forest, there is an interesting home located there.  In 1915 and 1916, the future American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald visited Lake Forest.  He had a love interested who lived there, Ginerva King, the daughter of a wealthy family.  Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, Ginerva married someone else.  However, many speculate that she helped inspire parts of the plot for his first book, This Side of Paradise (1920), as well as for his most famous book, The Great Gatsby (1925).  After being abandoned for years, new owners are currently attempting to restore this mansion to its former glory.

4. Marx Brothers Home

4512 S. King Dr. (Grand Blvd. when they lived there), Chicago, IL 60653

Many may not know it, but the early twentieth century comedians, the Marx Brothers, lived in Chicago for a time.  However, it was in the 1910s, before they became famous through their movies.  The entire family lived there, not just the three most famous brothers, known as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.  This Jewish family lived in what was then a Jewish neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, as can be attested by the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church near their home, which used to be a synagogue.

5. Barack Obama’s Home

5046 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60615

Former President Barack Obama taught law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.  Then, in 2005, he purchased a home not far from the University.  That was also when he began to become more involved in politics.  The Obamas still own their Chicago home, although they are not there often.  A blockade still keeps cars away from his street, and a sign is posted in the front warning people that the Secret Service has the home under surveillance.

Sources and Further Reading

Holst, Amber. “A Presidential Neighborhood: The Obama Family Home in Hyde Park.” Enjoy Illinois, June 8, 2018. https://www.enjoyillinois.com/travel-illinois/obama-home-chicago-hyde-park/ (accessed October 30, 2019).

“The ‘Home Alone’ House for Sale in Winnetka, Illinois.” Hooked on Houses. https://hookedonhouses.net/2011/05/08/real-home-alone-house-winnetka-illinois/ (accessed October 30, 2019).

Klocksin, Scott. “Airball: Why is Michael Jordan’s Estate in Highland Park not Selling?” The Real Deal, May 3, 2018. https://therealdeal.com/chicago/2018/05/03/airball-michael-jordans-unsellable-highland-park-estate/ (accessed October 30, 2019).

Rodkin, Dennis. “Buyers Plan to Make ‘Gatsby’ House Great Again.” Crain’s Chicago Business, September 18, 2018. https://www.chicagobusiness.com/residential-real-estate/buyers-plan-make-gatsby-house-great-again (accessed October 30, 2019).