By Jerry McDonald
In the movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a character proclaims, “Sir, this is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And so, legends and stories about men like Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Billy the Kid and Sam Bass have shaped popular perception of what we call “The Old West.” But for all their fame and notoriety, they did not truly shape the West; it was the unsung settlers and businessmen who, for better or for worse, transformed the American West.
Two such men were Joseph McCoy and Joseph Glidden, both of Illinois. One created a viable market for Texas cattle and made the great trail drives possible; the other developed the product that helped to end those drives and changed the cattle business and western landscape forever.
Joseph McCoy, the youngest of 11 children, was born to David and Mary McCoy in Sangamon County on December 21, 1837. The McCoys must have been a family of some means because Joseph not only completed grammar school, but also attended Knox College in Galesburg, an oddity for a family that large. In 1861, a few months before his 24th birthday, he married and entered the mule and cattle business.
As the Civil War ended, two problems emerged in the cattle business. The new slaughterhouses in Chicago had a strong demand for beef, but Midwest supply could not keep up with demand.
Texas was suffering from an abundance of cattle, but no market. A $3 Texas cow was worth $30 or more in Chicago, but the problem was transporting them there. Cattle drives were not a new phenomenon. Prior to the Civil War, ranchers in east and central Texas had driven herds to cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Sedalia, Mo., and even Chicago. But the Midwest farms were taking over the land, and it became increasingly difficult to move herds of any size through areas that were fenced and under cultivation.
Railroads were the logical way to ship cattle, but the nearest railhead to Texas was at Sedalia, Mo., and farmers in eastern Kansas and western Missouri were opposed to cattle herds crossing their property. One reason was the devastation a large herd could wreak on a community’s crops. Yet another was the Tick Fever carried by Texas cattle. Over several centuries, the Texas Longhorn had developed immunity to this deadly fever, but not the domestic Midwestern cattle. By the mid 1850s, Missouri farmers were turning back the herds by force and, through the legislature, were successful in barring Texas cattle from their borders. By 1859, Kansas had followed suit.
In 1867, a series of events created an unparalleled opportunity for Joseph McCoy. First, the Kansas legislature relaxed the law against Texas herds trailing into Kansas, if the herds were west of an established boundary. At the same time, the Kansas Pacific Railroad, later the Union Pacific, was building across northern Kansas. West of Topeka, the rails passed through a former stagecoach stop once known as Mud Creek, now renamed Abilene. It was still just a proverbial “wide spot in the road,” but McCoy had plans to change that.
He purchased 250 acres just north of Abilene, built an office, a bank, a hotel and a stockyard capable of handling 20,000 cattle. He then persuaded the Kansas Pacific to build a 100-car-spur at Abilene for loading cattle. He advertised the Abilene railhead the length and breadth of Texas, even sending riders to some of the biggest ranches. Soon, Texas longhorns and Texas cowboys were headed for Abilene following an established trade route known as the Chisholm Trail.
On September 5, 1867, 20 carloads of cattle left Abilene bound for Chicago. By the year’s end more than 35,000 cattle had passed through McCoy’s stockyards, and Abilene entered Western lore as the first “Cowtown.”
The next four years were boom times for Abilene. The number of cattle shipped increased each year, as did the number of cowboys arriving. Hordes of young Texans, straight off the trail with their pockets full of money, fed the city coffers, but they could also wreak havoc. The incidents portrayed in the old Western movies were often tame compared to what actually happened when the drovers hit town.
In 1871, Joseph McCoy was elected mayor of Abilene. In an effort to curb the lawlessness, he hired William Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill. Unfortunately, Marshall Hickok showed a greater affinity for gambling halls and the “ladies” who worked there, than for keeping order. By the fall, the city fathers had had enough. They told the Texans that Abilene was closed to the cattle trade and strongly suggested that Wild Bill seek employment elsewhere.
Joseph Mc Coy moved on, too. Abilene’s sudden turn to respectability coincided with the railroads pushing to the south and west to other Kansas towns such as Wichita, Ellsworth and Dodge City. McCoy had made a lot of money in Abilene, but he had spent a lot on promotion. Like so many businessmen who overextended themselves, he fell victim to a fickle market.
In 1872, he was promoting refrigeration cars in Wichita. In 1880, he was a livestock agent in Kansas City and was employed by the U.S. government to report on the livestock industry for the 11th U.S. Census. In 1890, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He died in Kansas City on October 19, 1915.
Legend has it that when McCoy arrived in Abilene in 1867, he boasted that he would ship 200,000 head of cattle east in the next 10 years. When he left in 1871, more than 3,000,000 had passed through the Abilene stockyards. The boast may be a legend, but the numbers are fact.
Joseph Glidden, like so many early Illinois residents, came to the state seeking opportunity. He was born in Charleston, N.H. on January 18, 1813, but while still a boy, his family moved to Orleans County, N.Y. There, he was a typical farm boy, working the farm in summer and attending school in winter months. In his late teens, he determined to be a teacher and went back to school, first attending Middlebury Academy in Vermont, then moving on to Lima, N.Y. to attend seminary.
After a few years of teaching, he returned to Orleans County to take up farming. In 1837, he married, but within three years, his wife and children had died. Desiring to have his own land, but short of money, he decided to migrate west. In 1842, he traveled to Illinois, working farms along the way to sustain himself and generate capital. By 1844, he had raised enough money to purchase 600 acres near DeKalb. Over the next several years, he increased his holdings to 1,500 acres, and in 1851, he married for a second time to Lucinda Warner. For the next 22 years, Glidden and his family lived the life of a prosperous Midwestern farm family.
In 1873, Glidden attended the DeKalb County Fair and saw an exhibit for a new type of fence. The exhibit featured a section of wooden rail fence, the standard fencing in the region. But this section of rail, designed to be attached to an existing fence of plank, rail or smooth wire, was studded with metal points.
Barbed fence, or barbed wire, was a relatively new idea. The French had been experimenting with it for a couple of decades, and in 1867, a farmer in Ohio received the first U.S. patent, but no one had developed a commercially successful design. The significance of the DeKalb Fair exhibit lay not in its commercial viability, it had none, but in that it inspired Glidden and two other local men, Jacob Haish and Isaac Ellwood, to try their hand at making a better product.
Glidden discarded the idea of the wooden rail in favor of a single straight wire with short pieces of wire placed at intervals and double looped so that each end formed a barb. A second wire was then wrapped around the first to hold the barb loops in place. Legend has it that he and his wife adapted a coffee grinder mechanism to speed up the manufacture of the wire.
On October 27, 1873, Glidden applied for a patent on his design. Less than two months later, Jacob Haish applied for a patent on a similar design and soon filed a challenge to Glidden’s application. One year later, the legal challenge was dismissed and Joseph Glidden was granted U.S. Patent #157.124.
By the time the patent was granted, Glidden’s wire had developed a reputation, and local sales were growing into regional sales. He developed machinery to speed up manufacturing, and persuaded local businessman, Isaac Ellwood, to join him in business. Ellwood, perhaps realizing the superiority of Glidden’s design over his own and cognizant of the fact that the Glidden patent was already validated, agreed. In 1875, they formed the Barbed Fence Company.
The company prospered, but in 1876, Glidden sold his half interest to Washburn and Moen of Worcester, Ma. for $60,000 and royalties for the life of the patent.
Texas cattle country, where natural fencing material was scarce, seemed like a natural market for the new wire, but Texas had a tradition of open range and initially many Texans were hostile to the idea of fences.
There were several advantages to fencing. First, it would allow cattlemen to improve their herds without fear of contamination by other breeds. Second, they could improve their grazing lands, since a fence prevented someone else’s cattle from grazing on their grass. Finally, fewer cowboys were needed to care for fenced cattle, and operating costs could be reduced. But ranchers were a conservative lot and slow to embrace change, so barbed wire sales in Texas languished.
In 1876, the Washburn-Moen Company hired an enterprising young salesman, John Gates (also an Illinois native), to sell their barbed wire, and sent him to Texas. After a few fruitless weeks, Gates had an idea, arranging a demonstration in the military plaza of San Antonio. Confining a herd of cattle with barbed wire, he then provoked a stampede. The wire held, and with the exception of minor cuts, the cattle were unharmed. Within months, Gates was selling more wire than the company could provide, and by 1890, barbed wire fence was a fixture in the western landscape.
After selling his share of the business, Joseph Glidden took no active part in the barbed wire business, but continued to draw royalties on his patent until 1901. In the 1890s, he purchased a half interest in a ranch in Texas, but he remained in DeKalb. He was a mainstay of the business community and a prominent citizen until his death in 1906. Glidden’s design, dubbed “The Winner,” has been called “the force that changed the West” and is still the most widely used barbed wire throughout North America.
Joseph McCoy and Joseph Glidden are not household names, there are no biographies devoted to them, nor is it likely their names will ever grace the marquis of a movie theater. Nevertheless, these Illinoisans made an enduring contribution to the development of the American West.