In 1874, an innovative farmer from DeKalb, Illinois received the first patent for barbed wire. Joseph Glidden established the Barb Wire Fence Company with Isaac Ellwood, also of DeKalb. It’s doubtful that either man understood that this invention would become one of what the BBC recently listed as“the 50 things that made the modern economy”.
Until the time of the Civil War the perception of the American Midwest was one of a vast empty impediment to be overcome in order to reach the natural splendors (and gold) of the Far West. Horses and cattle could roam like the buffalo, freely grazing where the grass and climate dictated. In the interest of settling the Great Plains, President Lincoln established the Homestead Act in 1862. It set aside 160 acres for any citizen willing to build a home and work the land for five years. This proved a pivotal step in a process of defining property rights in America. One of the first things people did was fence themselves off from the undefined frontier.
Back in DeKalb, Glidden and Ellwood produced 32 miles of barbed wire during the first year of their patent award. A mere six years later, the same factory turned out 263,000 miles of wire. Fence raising and cutting wars on the prairie ensued, but with 15,000 homesteads created in 1865 alone, the trend was clear, and the days of the open range were largely over.
Fortunes were made on this fencing, which was described by John Warne Gates as “lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust”. The wire could be strung long distances with a minimum of wood ( or even limestone, which was fashioned into posts in western Kansas where a tree was an oddity). It was impervious to livestock, which quickly learned to avoid it, and its sharp points kept encroachment to a minimum. The steel even aged well, making it a value over time.
All of this is prologue to the introduction of William Edenborn (1848-1926). A native of Westphalia in what is now Germany, he arrived “a penniless adventurer” in America at the age of 19. His first job was painting oil barrels for Standard Oil Company. A later apprenticeship in a wire works developed his interest in inventing better means of production, and he moved to St Louis in 1870 and worked for a wire business with Frank Ludlow. They began production of barbed wire and nails from a factory at Main and Gratiot Streets. In 1877, Edenborn and O.P. Saylor founded the St Louis Wire Mill Company.
A keen innovator, Edenborn saw the manufacturing end of barbed wire as the real opportunity, and set about designing better machines for fabricating the wire. A series of patents followed, and Edenborns cost of production plummeted. He drove the cost of barbed wire from 17 cents to less than three cents per pound. This led to his controlling 75% of the U.S. market for wire.
John Warne Gates, a man known as “Bet A Million” Gates joined with Edenborn in St Louis in 1881. Together, they began assimilating smaller players in the industry, and formed Consolidated Steel and Wire Company. A long story leads to J.P. Morgan eventually buying or starving everyone else out of business, creating a monopoly for US Steel. An exception was Frank Ludlow, who moved the Ludlow Saylor Wire Company into production of steel cloth, elevator cages, and wrought iron. It exists to this day. Here is a link to their catalog from 1900. You’ll see a lot of familiar Lafayette Square fence designs here:
Ludlow’s brother Richard had first started Ludlow Saylor Wire in 1856 and built his home at 40 Benton Place in 1873. Interestingly, on December 5, 1894, the St Louis City Council voted to award Richard $681.00 for property damages resulting from the regrading of Hickory Street behind his property. This is the 20-30 foot limestone wall you see today, originally intended to insulate wealthy Benton Place from the riff-raff at Schnaiders Beer Garden.
William Edenborn himself had long lived a block away, at 2019 Park Avenue in Lafayette Square. With Gates, his St Louis Wire Mill Company at Gratiot and 21st Street in 1892 employed 400 workers and turned out 100 tons of wire and 1000 kegs of nails daily. His wire nail machine invention drove the cost of nails from eight to two cents per pound. Again, business took off as competitors struggled to compete. As his holdings increased and became known as Consolidated Steel and Wire, and then American Steel Wire Company, he caught another tail wind with the country’s need for telegraph and telephone wire. He quickly became one of the wealthiest men in the U.S, and finally sold to Morgan for a cool $100 million in 1901.
Edenborn relocated to Louisiana, became the state’s largest landowner, and established railroads and barge and steamboat lines in the South. When he died, his funeral procession stretched for 15 blocks, and 12 truckloads of flowers accompanied the hearse.
Despite his enormous wealth, William Edenborn and his wife (the former Sarah Drain of St Louis) lived very simply, drawing a salary of $200.00 a year. This would be equivalent to about $5000.00 today. At the time of his death, he was worth an estimated $75 million, and his will was predictably contested for years.
It’s interesting to see what some of these hard-driving figures who lived in the Square were capable of accomplishing. The years following the Civil War saw a remarkable reshaping of the technologies that defined the nation, in communication, transportation, and economics. Some of it was driven by greed and corruption, but at the heart of most stories of overarching achievement is a great idea by a simple person. We had our share of Citizen Kane type stories in Lafayette Square. It’s always a mixed blessing.
Barbed wire has been adapted over time to keeping people out, as well as keeping people in. Menacing steel fence and barbed wire have formed the front lines in dozens of conflicts. It’s seldom the thing as much as the application of that thing that determines whether it is perceived as good or bad. This has developed what, from an Edenborn perspective, must seem like unintended consequences. Barbed wire has become a thorny subject indeed.
Thanks to research sources including:
William Edenborn: The Man Who Fenced The West; Glen Coleman; Glen Coleman Publishing; 1980. This was also the source of the terrific artwork by Siegfried Reinhardt, an artist worthy of note; responsible for murals, mosaics and stained glass around the area.
Iron Age Vol 67; David Williams Company; 1901
The Industries Of St Louis; John Leonard; J.M. Elstner & Company; St Louis; 1887
St Louis Wire Pen And Sunlight Sketches Of St Louis; St Louis Wire Company;1892
The Devil’s Rope: How Barbed Wire Changed America; Tim Harford; BBC World Service; 2017
Our Times: William Edenborn, One Of The Country’s Richest Men; New Orleans Times- Picayune Staff on nola.com; 2012
Ludlow Saylor Company catalogue No. 33 courtesy of the Internet Library
Dictionary Of Louisiana Biography – Louisiana Historical Society