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A Texas Panhandle museum explores the wire that tamed the American West

The Devil’s Rope museum in McLean beckons travelers off Route 66

Devil's Rope Museum
Devil's Rope Museum (Devil's Rope Museum)

Pull into the Texas Panhandle town of McLean along old Route 66, walk past the two balls of rusty barbed wires, each 3 feet in diameter, and enter the Devil’s Rope Museum: You just might learn a whole lot about how the American West was settled. Inside the cinder-block building, which once housed a brassiere factory, exhibits and vintage tools shed light on an oft-overlooked contribution to Texas history. Invented in the 1870s, barbed wire was designed to prick and discourage. With the two-stranded metal wire lined by dagger-like barbs, ranchers controlled cattle herds and breeding, and farmers protected their fields against roaming stock. In the process, barbed-wire fences displaced the Longhorn breed, which was suited to open range; interrupted cattle drives across the Panhandle Plains; and obstructed the raiding trails of Plains tribes such as the Comanche. In other words, this is the wire that tamed the West.

The Devil’s Rope Museum and its plain-spoken founder, Delbert Trew, tell those stories and a whole lot more. Two museums actually share space inside the building. Most visitors stop for the Route 66 Museum, Trew says, in large part because the building is on the mythic Mother Road that links Chicago and Los Angeles—a route celebrated in song and film but bypassed decades ago by Interstate 40.

“You’re driving on the interstate at 70 miles per hour and see a sign for a barbed-wire museum, and you don’t exactly hit your brakes,” Trew says. “But when you’re driving that road and see a sign for Route 66 Museum… I’d estimate 75 to 80 percent come in for Route 66.” The Route 66 rooms feature vintage signage and artifacts like the original life-size fiberglass steer that stood sentinel in front of the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. A 10-foot-long tin snake, poised to strike, long ago greeted motorists who couldn’t resist the “RATTLESNAKES–EXIT NOW” sign directing them to the long-defunct Regal Reptile Ranch in nearby Alanreed. But those in the know come for the barbed wire.

In the early days of ranching, northern landowners relied on ditches and hedges to mark property lines and control stock, while in Texas, some stockmen employed wooden fences and others ranged cattle on open lands. Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, introduced barbed wire to the world in 1874 with a design that could be mass-produced in a factory. One wire had evenly spaced barbs. A second, barbless wire was wrapped around the first wire, which doubled the line’s strength and durability. Traveling salesmen brought the product to Texas, where it eventually caught on.

“The name devil’s rope came from religious groups,” Trew says. “When barbed wire was introduced, it was very vicious and it caused lots of injuries to cattle, horses, and people. Religious groups called it the work of the devil, and they called it the devil’s rope.” Most young people aren’t much interested in barbed wire, its history, its tools, and its purpose, Trew acknowledges. City people, he says, have little appreciation for how barbed wire civilized the Great Plains and the western United States. But they might feel differently if they could walk among the barbed-wire covered exhibits at the museum.

“The whole significance of barbed wire is it’s a barrier,” Trew explains. “That’s what we use to delineate our land, draw our lines; this is mine, this is yours.”

The U.S. government has issued patents for more than 800 types of barbed wire over the years, and collectors have identified more than 2,000 types of barbed wire with barbs of various shapes and sizes, many of which are on display on the museum walls. It takes 4 miles of barbed wire to fence a section of land, or 1 square mile.

Trew says barbed wire evolved in three distinct phases. The first phase was “vicious,” meaning the barbs did not give way. When manufacturers attempted to make a more humane product, “the barbed wire went from vicious to mild,” Trew says. “The main thing they did was make the barb a little loose on the wire so it wouldn’t cut like a knife,” he says. “But it didn’t do the job, so it became a little more vicious again.”

The third phase is the modern era, which is all about “fast and cheap” manufacturing. Ranchers make up 80 percent of the barbed-wire market today, Trew says, noting, “The best barbed wire is made in the United States, by the old-time companies that know what they’re doing.” These include brands like Davis Wire and Red Brand Fence.

The Devil’s Rope and Route 66 museums opened in 1991, more than 20 years after the bra factory closed. “I became involved because I live 11 miles from here,” says Trew, a collector of barbed wire and tools.

Several hundred barbed-wire collectors wanted to establish a museum on a well-traveled highway in a location more temperate than LaCrosse, Kansas, “the Barbed Wire Capital of the World.” LaCrosse is home to another barbed-wire museum and headquarters of the Antique Barbed Wire Society, but the town is 25 miles from the nearest interstate and doesn’t get many visitors.

“A lot of the collectors were getting old, and they wanted a place to put their collections,” Trew explains. With his trim white beard and mustache and a fine felt Western hat on his head, Trew projects the image of a grizzled old rancher because he is one—a little rough around the edges, which is the way you have to be to survive around these parts.

Trew runs the museum with his wife, Ruth Trew, the museum treasurer, and he serves as a tour guide and barbed-wire historian. Trew is known among barbed-wire collectors for his unrivaled library of barbed-wire publications, and he’s even authored a book, The Wire Cut Medicine Era: A Study of the Medicine Containers, about bottled liniment cures for barbed-wire cuts and infections, which were common in the years when the fencing was first developed.

The Devil’s Rope Museum also displays a collection of fence-making tools, including wire-stranding machines, wire stretchers, sledgehammers, wrenches, saws, mauls, staples, and post-hole diggers. “The Smithsonian was here, and they said we had more fence-makers than they did,” Trew says. “We’ve got every fence component we could think of.” He breaks into a grin when he pauses at an array of tools for digging holes, an essential part of fence-making. “This display is the one that gives the ol’ cowboys chills—post-hole diggers,” he says. “They come out of here shaking.” Clearly, digging post holes was not a cowboy’s preferred labor. “Here’s one where they drilled into rock,” he says, pointing out a heavy steel drill. “It’d take awhile.” Some of the neatest tools are hands-on, with cranks that twist metal strands into lines of fence. The most bizarre is a skip-row planter farming implement, which would roll down a fence line, dropping a seed each time a barb hit the seed bin, thereby distributing the seeds evenly.

The museum also displays a hodgepodge of other barbed wire and ranching items, such as patent models for gates and a historic ranch wagon from a nearby spread. “Over there is a barbed wire from overseas made with camel’s hair and cactus stickers,” nods Trew, who is also a sculptor. Stopping at his own waxwork assemblage of pipe in the shape of an old cowboy, he says, “None of my people are very pretty.”

Leigh Ann Isbell, the museum curator, got involved because of her interest in history. Her fascination has grown as she’s learned about “the different kinds, how they’re twisted, the different barbs, how it was used for telephone wire, for planting seeds. Somebody said, ‘Hey, if barbed wire can do this for cattle, think of what else it could do.’”

Ingenuity, technology, industry, and geography are all part of the barbed wire story, it turns out. “That’s our deal,” Trew says, puffing up with more than just a little bit of pride.

The Devil’s Rope Museum, 100 Kingsley St., McLean. Hours: Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-4 p.m. March-October. Closed for winter. The museum’s annual Reunion and Wildcat Swap Meet is April 3-4. 806-779-2225; barbwiremuseum.com

This article originally appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article to its original format.