As you drive throughout the Tehachapi Mountains, it isn't hard to see evidence of the area's ranching past: there are old barbed wire fences alongside most roads. Sometimes called "The Wire that Won the West," barbed wire has been a legacy of ranching since it first became popular in the 1870s.
Commonly referred to as "bobwire," these strands of steel wire with sharpened barbs at regular intervals have been used by people for 150 years to keep their animals in — and other people's animals out.
Barbed wire's popularity exploded in the late 1800s as land in the Midwest and West began to be divided up. Millions of acres of previously unfenced land had been used as a kind of public commons, as ranchers moved their livestock around where feed was available. Vast cattle herds could also be driven to far away stockyards through the fenceless prairies and plains.
Conflict between ranchers competing for the same grass, water and other resources was inevitable, and when farmers began acquiring land to grow crops and needed to exclude free-ranging cattle, problems escalated and the so-called "Range Wars" began. More than 800 different patents for barbed wire were issued by the U.S. Patent Office.
A huge diversity of different styles and patterns were used by different manufacturers. While Joseph Glidden's famous pattern, called "The Winner" was awarded a patent in 1874 and became the leading design, there were hundreds of lesser-known varieties.
Many of these more obscure styles of antique wire survived on fence lines and eventually became popular among collectors of Western Americana. The Tehachapi Museum has a good display featuring more than 50 different types of antique bobwire. They are cut into the typical 18-inch length that is the accepted standard among collectors.
While barbed wire has been used to confine or exclude a variety of animals, it is primarily associated with cattle. It is useless to keep in pigs, who go between the strands or root underneath it to escape. Horse owners will utilize bobwire, but don't generally like it. Cattle or sheep that get caught in a barbed wire fence will typically wait patiently to be untangled, but horses are more prone to panicking and can get badly injured by the sharp points.
Starting in World War I, barbed wire began to be used on a new species: humans. Thousands of miles of barbed wire were used as part of fortifications as well as to confine prisoners of war in camps. The barbs were longer and much more numerous than was used for livestock.
The military use of barbed wire only increased in World War II, and barbed wire gained an association with violent conflict and repressive authoritarian regimes that continues to this day.
After the war ended, the military surplused huge quantities of this vicious wire and sold it very cheaply. Many Tehachapi area ranchers and farmers utilized this "entanglement wire" and you can still see it on old fence lines more than 70 years later. It is easily distinguishable from livestock wire by the wicked, oversized and more numerous barbs.
Barbed wire continues to be used in fencing in the Tehachapi Mountains, both to confine cattle and also to delineate property lines even when no livestock are present. Where fences were once the bane of free-ranging cattle and the cowboys who rode herd, for the past century much of a cowboy's job has consisted of mending and repairing bobwire fences. The job is not easy.
As Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson sing "We're tired of the rocks and the brambles, Those barbed wire fences and all, And we're lookin' for a home life and clean smellin' sheets, And all the soft places to fall. . . "
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org