Barbed wire tamed the Panhandle plains

Published: Oct. 19, 2016 at 9:34 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2016 at 10:57 PM CDT
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Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA

CANYON, TX (KFDA) - Perhaps you've heard the gag about "there's nothing between the Panhandle and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence" to explain why the north wind howls here.

But barbed wire became big throughout the Texas Panhandle not long after the Civil War. A historical marker in front of the First United Bank Events Center at West Texas A&M University tells visitors just how big it became.

Not only did it keep animals inside the wire, it kept wild animals outside of it.

And it helped develop what would become the gigantic ranching industry through the region.

"Most believe the use of barbed wire was only to keep animals in," said Michael Grauer, associate director for curatorial affairs at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. "Actually it was strung as much to keep wild animals – buffalo, mustangs, pronghorns – out as much as domesticated animals, such as horses, cattle and hogs, in.

The marker, which commemorates the place where the owners of the T Anchor Ranch enclosed 240,000 acres, notes that ranchers initially resisted the barbed wire, which was developed by Joseph Glidden in Illinois and others. Glidden began manufacturing the wire in 1876.

Ranchers at first disliked the wire because they wanted free access to water and grassland. Cowboys disliked it. "Old-timers grew bitter," states the marker, because the wire blocked easy transport of livestock, which had to be "hauled rather than driven to market."

"Buffalo would usually run right through a fence," said Grauer. "Pronghorns, because they are runners, not jumpers, would crawl under it. Mustangs would tumble over a slack fence," he said.

Barbed wire was an improvement over chicken wire, Grauer said. "Chicken wire is simply too weak to keep animals out or in.  There was hog fence used out here, though, but not for cows or horses."

Grauer agrees that cowboys disliked the barbed wire. "Barbed wire was expensive and cowboys hated having to string it.  They thought doing anything on foot was beneath them.  If they couldn't do their jobs of work from the back of a horse, they didn't think it worth doing.  Stringing it was dangerous, not only from getting cut, but if the wire broke on a very taut fence, it could seriously injure anyone in its path.  Cow horses, about half wild anyway, would panic when they got tangled in barbed wire and get so bad cut up they had to be destroyed," Grauer said.

Those who were settling on the High Plains also needed a way to make their presence felt, said Grauer. "Barbed wire stringing was about establishing ownership and therefore control of the land.  The Great Plains are so vast, that the Euro-American approach was to systematize it, i.e. divide it into mile sections, and fractions of those sections, usually a quarter section (160 acres).  In Texas, Spanish land measurements are still used, especially in West and South Texas."

The marker, on Texas Highway 217, also notes that barbed wire likely "saved" the cattle industry.

How? "Because," the plaque reads, "improvements in breeding and feeding (of livestock) were possible on fenced ranges."

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