What do you do when your small-town bra factory closes? You open a barbed wire museum in the building. No kidding. This really happened. The town is McLean, Texas, the museum is called Devil’s Rope, and the experience of seeing it is far more interesting than it sounds.
Devil’s Rope closes during the winter when fewer travelers are crossing the Texas Panhandle on I-40 east of Amarillo. It reopens about March 1. On March 1st, 2015, I peered through the Museum’s door, wondered why the lights weren’t on, and was ready to give up. But Ruth wasn’t. We went to the town’s library and, of course, the librarian knew and called Anita. Within an hour Anita was letting me into Devil’s Rope, apologizing for how cold it was inside, and assuring me that the museum would open tomorrow when she felt better.
Peering through the glass, I had assumed that Devil’s Rope was small. Wrong. It was both large and comprehensive about barbed wire, a subject I knew almost nothing about. Ruth was fascinated too. She quickly borrowed my notebook to write facts about war wire, barriers and entanglements used to frustrate the enemy first used during the Civil War in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when telegraph wire was entwined among stumps and posts. War wire reached its greatest use during World War I. The war wire exhibit is one of many in Devil’s Rope, where I also learned about decorative wire, chuck wagons, post to post stretchers, etc. One of the more interesting exhibits was about brands, especially the ones used by famous people like George Washington whose G W branding iron sizzled on his Mount Vernon Farm in 1765.
Abraham Lincoln was indirectly responsible for the invention of barbed wire. He signed the Homestead Act which, according to the American Barb Wire Collectors Society, gave every “white male 21 years or older” 160 free acres. Wild buffalo and freely grazing cattle soon made fencing necessary, and farmers found few trees and rocks on the prairie. A New York blacksmith, not a Texan, invented “Thorney Fence” and patented it in 1868. However, the patent’s language was faulty and Michael Kelly eventually had to buy a license from another barbed wire inventor to make his own wire. Joseph Glidden’s design, not Michael’s, earned Joe the title “Father of Barbed Wire”. Today 450 patents exist as do 2,000 variations, and avid collectors covet them all.
I took a brief look at the Devil Rope’s other exhibit, a tribute to the part of old Route 66 that once passed through McLean, before talking with Anita. She proudly informed me that this was the largest collection of barbed wire and fencing tools in the world and that 6,000 visitors pass through her seasonal museum each year. She reminded me that it was free but that donations were appreciated. I have since learned that barbed wire is a big but somewhat obscure interest. There are other museums devoted to it in Georgia and Kansas and collectors attend conventions every year.