Growing up in rural northern Illinois, history is everywhere, as it should be. From the flat lands of DeKalb County to the rolling hills of Ogle, Carroll, and Jo Daviess Counties, the land is filled with stories of Prairie Bandits, Indian Wars, Inventors, and a Pioneer Spirit. First settled in the 1830s, northern Illinois has a much harsher climate than the southern part of the state. Illinois became a state in 1818 and it took 12 years for settlement to creep its way north from the south. The southern part of the state benefited from the Ohio and Mississippi River systems along with a humid subtropical climate. However, the south did not have the great thick rich soil of central and northern Illinois that farmers craved. Slowly, farmers and civilization made its way north. The invention of a self cleaning plow in 1837 combined with the I&M Canal, further spurred northern settlement. And in doing so, pioneers encountered a land filled with life, and winters that would chill the bones. Out of these environs would come three men who would transform one community and the western United States.
In 1843, Joseph Glidden moved to Ogle County with his young wife and sons. They would all perish in the next few years except for Joseph. Leaving Ogle County in 1850, Glidden settled on a farm 1 mile west of DeKalb. In 1851, he would marry Lucinda Warne. The land, 600 acres in all, required a lot of work. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Glidden prospered and was a stalwart member of the community. For several years he was sheriff of the county in addition to being a farmer.
Issac Ellwood had a different route to the county. Ellwood, as a young man, worked on boats traversing the Erie Canal, worked as a clerk in a store, and went to California in 1851 as part of the Gold Rush. Whether it was working in the mines or in a store, Ellwood was quite frugal and saved his money. Ellwood would spend 4 years in California before heading back east. Ellwood made his way to DeKalb in 1855. Upon arrival, he set up a hardware store in the little town of 500.
While Glidden and Ellwood were both born in the US, Jacob Haish was born in Germany and immigrated to the US in 1836. In the 1840s, Haish first made his way to DuPage County before marrying and moving to the DeKalb area. While Glidden was a farmer and sheriff, and Ellwood a businessman, Haish was a carpenter. He set up shop in DeKalb in 1853. It was Haish who first had the idea for a new kind of fencing. Haish originally tried using Osage Orange bushes to keep livestock in. The thorns of the bushes were very similar to the barbs of what would soon be barbed wire. However, the bushes took up too much space and took too long to grow in addition to maintaining. They also did not adjust well to the climate of the North.
As these three men plied their individual trades, they all became very prosperous in their own right. They did know each other (It’s hard not to in a town of only 500-700). Legend has it that the three men all attended a local fair where they saw the latest style of fencing called barbed wire. Actually, barbed wire had been around since the 1840s. Not the wire that we know today, but early predecessors nonetheless. At the fair, this version of barbed wire was attached to wood. It was not a stand alone fence or wire. All three men purportedly left the fair feeling that they could do better. Legend also has it that by the early 1870s, Glidden’s wife, Lucinda, was tired of the cattle roaming all over the place. She urged her husband to do something about it.
In spite of local local legend and myth, both Glidden and Haish set about in the early 1870s to make a new, better version of fencing. Glidden often used hairpins of his wife to test out his latest model. Glidden began applying for patents on barbed wire as early as 1873. But his 1874 version would become the most widely known. Dubbed “The Winner”, for reasons that will be explained later, the two wires intertwined with a single barb.
Haish had begun work on his own version. Haish’s version was very similar to Glidden’s. It contained two wires strung together and a single barb. Like Glidden, Haish began work in 1873 on his barbed wire. It was not until 1875 that Haish perfected his version of barbed wire with the “S Barb”. Over the next twenty years, the two men would spend over $2 million in litigation over who had the idea and patent first. They both would make millions more in manufacturing but eventually they would settle out of court. Each would pay the other the same amount per pound produced. However, Glidden’s patent would be declared “the winner”.
Issac Ellwood was not an inventor but he was a shrewd businessman. For the vast sum of $250, Ellwood went into business with Glidden manufacturing the wire. Both men became very rich very fast. Glidden would not stay in the business long. He sold his interest, and kept a royalty, to Washburn and Moen. Glidden would go on to own the local newspaper, bank, hotel, and many other businesses in the now thriving capital of barbed wire.
As for the wire, it transformed the west. The long cattle drives were now over. Railroads came to town to pick up the cattle. The occasional range war sprang up as emotions boiled over water rights and land access to take the cattle to the railroad. Indians called the wire “The Devil’s Rope” for what it could do to flesh. Some states even tried to outlaw the wire. They failed.
But in the 1870s and 1880s, railroad companies loved the wire. Instead of having to pay out damages to farmers whose cattle wandered aimlessly on to the tracks, the railroad companies used the wire to stop livestock from running in to the train.
But back in DeKalb, barbed wire made the town. Using immigrant labor, Swedes came to work in the barbed wire factories, each employing near a 100 men. The town grew and with it, Glidden, Ellwood, and Haish each were philanthropic with their wealth. From banks to a post office to a hospital to a library, the three men provided much needed capital for many public works.
In the 1890s, the three men, along with Clinton Rosette, sought to bring a teacher’s college to DeKalb. The men, who had different political philosophies, set aside their differences to make it happen. DeKalb, along with Dixon and Rockford, were the final cities in competition for the college. The three men knew that if DeKalb got the college, then the community would thrive even more. Glidden offered 60 acres to be set aside for the college and Ellwood would provide interest free loans for the construction of what would later be called Altgeld Hall. A plaque of the four men (Rosette included) hangs in the library at NIU, aptly named, Founders Memorial Library. And NIU’s sprawling campus now encircles the Glidden homestead.
No matter where you go in DeKalb, or the county, you are reminded of the influence that these three men have had. From roads to streets to buildings and a University, the town still remembers. Ellwood’s house still stands as do Glidden’s homestead and barn. Unfortunately, Haish’s home was destroyed in the early 1960s. Their influence as barons and pillars of the community still stands.
For further reading on the impact of Barbed Wire – Read The Devil’s Rope
For further viewing – See Barbed Wire Pioneers produced the Department of Communications at NIU.