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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/Don’t Fence Me In

Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about barbed wire. Back in 1874, an amateur inventor applied for a patent for the fences that changed the landscape of the American West.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: David Byrne, “Don’t Fence Me In” (LIMEWIRE)]

MALE: To all whom it may concern, be it known that I, Joseph F. Glidden, of Dekalb, in the county of Dekalb and State of Illinois, have invented a new and valuable improvement in wire fences.

CURWOOD: One-hundred and twenty-eight years ago this week, the wild, wild West was tamed. In the late 1800s, most of the West was still wide open country. Settlers and Native Americans hunted what remained of wildlife on wind-swept prairies, and cowboys could drive their herds of cattle over hundreds of miles of range to the towns and railheads. There was plenty of grass and water for everyone.

But as farmers began to grow crops, they had a problem. A foraging herd of Texas Longhorns could trample and gobble a few acres of crops practically overnight. Wood was scarce and farmers couldn't get enough of it to build fences that would keep out marauding cattle. And wire fencing was just too flimsy to stop the burley longhorns.

But Joseph Glidden had sharpened his thinking to come up with a new and improved design. It called for two intertwining strands of wire that locked barbs, or sharp points, in place making a sturdy and painful barrier that stopped beast and man alike. Before long, hundreds of miles of the prickly barrier criss-crossed the West. The fences disrupted traditional cattle drive routes and even blocked water sources on what was once open range.

Bloody feuds broke out between farmers and ranchers. And because barbed wire prevented game from reaching hunting grounds, Native Americans dubbed it "Devil's Rope." By the mid 1880s, falling beef prices and the expansion of the railroads conspired with barbed wire to end the era of large-scale cattle drives. The wild, wild West was never the same.

And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.



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