December 5, 2003
Snippets of history: Barbed-wire collection offers glimpse into past

By DEON LACKEY, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tucked in the corner of the agriculture room at the Pioneer Museum are placards with strings of barbed wire stapled to them.

The unassuming 18-inch strands are snippets of history, pieces of the thousands of miles of wire that tamed the American West, cordoned off the Australian Outback and surrounded foxholes in Cuba, Germany and Russia.

The placards are labeled: "Loop and Hatch Ornamental (Simple Lace)" and "J. Brinkerhoff-1881."

The collection on display was donated 17 years ago by Bob Ross, 82, who began collecting barbed wire more than 40 years ago as a simple way of remembering the various ranches where he worked as a cowboy.

"I was born and raised a cowboy," Ross explained. "To begin with, I worked with ranchers all over Montana and other states and up in Alberta. I just got to where I'd look up an extra piece of (barbed-wire) on a fence."

Ross thought he was the only one keeping an eye out for barbed wire until one day when he was riding fence with his friend, Frank Rauzi. He saw an interesting piece of splicing and stopped to get a sample.

Rauzi turned to him and said, "Are you a collector, too?"

"Until then, I thought I was the only oddball in the world," Ross said, laughing.

Barbed wire was first patented in 1867 and between 1870 and 1890, there were almost 300 lawsuits over who had invented it first. One hundred years later, there were more than 2,000 varieties.

The ribbons of wire with attached barbs were one of the primary instruments for settling the West. Ranchers used it to divide range into areas for grazing and crops and prevent trespassing.

The No. 1 user of barbed wire for years was the railroad, to protect its right of way. The railroads even had a special strand developed so they could tell when farmers and ranchers stole it to use on their property.

Barbed-wire collecting began to be recognized as a hobby in the 1960s, when a newspaper in Texas ran a story on a local collector and clubs began springing up around the country.

"It's a really fascinating hobby," Ross said. "It's a weakness, a phobia. Western things, Western life, is what has always interested me."

Barbed wire comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and at one time Ross had more than 700 specimens in his collection.

According to the Antique Barbed Wire Society's Web page, "Many wires are quite unique in purpose and style. There are barbs that resemble spurs, stars with different numbers of points, flat plates with corners bent and a variety of others."

For a time, Ross had his collection -- all labeled and strung on canvas -- on display in his basement, a room already crowded with tributes to every aspect of Western life: bronzes, novels, poetry, prints of Charlie Russell paintings, collections of flatirons and outhouses, ranching implements, saddles, chaps and spurs.

"One thing that's been helpful is having a very understanding wife," Ross said.

Ross only has about 20 strands now. He donated about 450 samples to the Stockmen's Memorial Foundation in Calgary, 150 to the Pioneer Museum, and 100 to the Museum of the Rockies.

"We'd had the fun of collecting it," Ross said.

More information on barbed-wire collecting is available online at antiquebarbedwiresociety.com, or rushcounty.org/BarbedWireMuseum.