The twists and turns that brought barbed wire to North Carolina

Ben Fortson

If you've ever had the pleasant experience of off-trail hiking through
deep Laurel thickets, grabby Doghobble vines or thorny Blackberry
underbrush—all common obstacles of bushwhacking in the Carolina
mountains—then you've likely had the equally pleasant experience of
stumbling blindly into a barbed wire fence.

Wiping the blood from your gouged arm or leg, you probably
exclaimed something like, "What in tarnation is a bob-wire fence doing in
the middle of the woods?!”

Good question. Let’s talk about that.

Ben Fortson

Erroneously, and anthropomorphically, referred to as "bob-wire", or
"bobbed-wire," most find little gratification in getting snagged by these
fanged fences. They rip clothing, snare hair, gouge flesh, make cattle moo
and wreak general discomfort on all things larger-than-a-house-cat.

Behind these simple pain inflicting demographics, lies a wonderfully
intriguing slice of the American west, which—post-by-post, roll-by-roll—
found it's way back east, eventually back to North Carolina.

Our story begins with Texas and a beloved icon of our somewhat
mythical past. Derogatorily referred to as cow-boys, these young men,
averaging between the ages of 16 to 25, signed-on with a trail boss to herd
cows (more correctly, long horn steers) to market.

A long-legged, jumbo-horned, heartier version of our modern-day
beef cattle, cowboys pushed millions of these Texas-born, Spanish-bred,
wild-eyed investments towards Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota
and Wyoming, usually doubling or tripling the herd-owners speculations by
the time they were sold-off or shipped back east.

Crowded into the 1870s and 1880s these 24/7, mosey-on-along,
river-crossin’, stampedin’, Indian-fightin’, cattle-rustlin’, gun-slingin’, cardplayin’
cow-punchin’ treks—covering hundreds of miles and lasting for
months—later produced the theatrical likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood
and Matt Dillion (mythical characters that sort-of blatantly exaggerated the
lives of real cowboys).

Back in the late 1870’s, these expansive wrangling expeditions also
produced conflict with local ranchers and farmers, who often found their
free-range homesteads trampled and denuded of vegetation by king-sized
herds of cattle. Tensions were building.

Meanwhile, back in Illinois, Joseph Glidden and Isaac Ellwood were
tweaking an 1860 French invention. Designed to discourage animals from
foraging in grandma’s garden, a Frenchman had attached a series of sharp
pointy wires to wooden fence rails to accomplish the job. Although it
worked fairly well, it still involved building a wooden fence. Glidden and
Elwood toyed with the idea of weaving barbed metallic wires between long
twisted strands of wire cable, which were then attached to posts to form a
pain-inducing fence. Obtaining a patent in 1873, the two formed the Barb
Fence Company.

Initially marketing their product to small farmers in Illinois—describing
it as, "lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust”—the
company eventually purchased a ranch in Texas, filled it with cattle and
encased it in barbed wire. The neighbors, noticing the sudden absence of
stampedes, stray-cattle roundups, cattle-thieving and hopping-mad
farmers, decided to try it themselves. Thereafter, barbed wire sales shifted
into high gear (by 1890, there were 150 companies manufacturing barbed
wire fencing).

As the concept spread north from Texas, so did barbed wire. And
before you can say, “Ouch, that wire is unquestionably sharp”, barbed wire
had tamed the west; huge swaths of land had been fenced, cattle kingdoms
were born, the “Fence Cutting War” and “Free Range War” had
commenced, and the gutsy, mustang-busting American icon—and the
cattle drive—had appeared and disappeared in the span of 20 years.

Standing atop Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina’s highest peak, one can
hardly imagine that these spectacular wooded vistas were once stripped of
vegetation. In the early 1900’s, logging companies were hauling out 50-
railroad cars of lumber a day from the Black Mountains. So intense and
indiscreet was the felling, railroad tracks—and loggers—came within 1/2
mile of the lofty peak.

If one were to peer out from Mt. Mitchell in those days, it would have
most-likely resembled Hiroshima, a holocaust of clear-cutting and erosion.
So devastating were these enterprising developments, the Asheville Citizen
(as reported by Alan Anderson), “…confessed to being torn between a
sense of development and progress and growing feelings of alarm and
shame.” The writer might have added, “… but the cattle like it.”

As loggers, homesteaders, furniture factories and fires stripped the
forest of trees, a growing feeling of preservation eventually prevailed—but
the damage had been done. Now there were mountain pastures far and
wide. Pastures that offered free meals.

Not unlike the cattle kings of the west, North Carolina’s farmers and
ranchers began fencing anything that slightly resembled a pasture, often
installing “bob-wire” across steep slopes, along ridge lines and river beds,
routinely ignoring who owned the seemingly endless supply of remote,
eatable land.

Of course, things change. Trees grow back, National Forests are
designated, land is surveyed and sold. But the barbed wire—not so fun to
remove, and amazingly hearty—remained.
Today, embedded in trees, weaving through the thickest beds of
rhododendron, casting it’s slim, metallic shadow on mountain ridges and
gouging your favorite fleece jacket, barbed wire reminds us of days—and
cattle—gone by.

So the next time you find yourself attached to a rusty old “bob-wire”,
put the brakes on that cursing and pause to reflect. You just got jabbed by
the “wire that tamed the west.”