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Common Kansas Items - March 30, 2018

Windmills, both new and old (like this one in Stafford County), are a common feature of the Kansas landscape. Can you name another one? (Photo by J. Schafer)

Q: "Torn Ribbon," "Beerbower's Two Point" and "Hyde's Spur Wheel" are all examples of a ubiquitous item that arrived in Kansas in the 1800s. Versions of this item are still in use today. What is it? (Need a hint? There's a museum dedicated to this item in La Crosse, Kansas!)

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A: Barbed wire

As the Kansas Historical Society writes, the prairies of Kansas historically were not plentiful sources of trees or loose stone, the kind of fence-building materials commonly found in other parts of the country. Barbed wire, therefore, was 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 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 by factories in the eastern United States. As long as the design did not infringe on previous patents, inventors stood to make money and a name for themselves.

Kansas Barbed Wire Inventors

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 was patented in 1881, by Joseph W. Harbaugh of Lawrence. Others include Beerbower's Two Point, patented in 1885, by George Marshall Beerbower of Cherryvale, Kansas. Hyde's Spur Wheel, patented in 1883, by Charles F. Hyde of Ottawa. Raile's Fence Signal, patented in 1887, by Robert E. Raile of Topeka and Schlyer's Fence Signal, patented in 1889, by John Schlyer of Hays.  

Fun Factoid #1: 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.

Fun Factoid #2: During the 1960s, the Lane Myers Company of Protection (in 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.

Did you know La Crosse, Kansas, is considered the Barbed Wire Capital of the World? It holds an annual Barbed Wire Festival and has a Barbed Wire MuseumYou'll find a few more prickly photos here.  

Discover more interesting facts about Kansas by visiting KPR's Kansas Trivia Archive.

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