Though there are many names that are synonymous with the American West — Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill — one of the most important names you’ve probably never heard. In 1874, Joseph Glidden patented barbed wire, eventually spawning a multi-million dollar industry. “Cheaper than dirt and stronger than steel,” was the catchphrase most commonly yelled by salesman. Funny enough, it is also what I say when pumping iron at the gym.
Glidden’s invention shaped the wild west, aiding settlers and farmers in taming the land. While the demand for barbed wire has reduced since the days of Wyatt Earp, the appreciation for the “devil’s rope” thrives in LaCrosse, Kansas, the self-dubbed Barbed Wire Capital of the World™. Every year, the Barbed Wire Collectors Association meets in LaCrosse to trade, swap, and sell the razor-sharp stuff, gearing up to the World Champion Barbed Wire Splicing Contest.
Yet the real star of LaCrosse is contained in a low-roofed, unassuming structure at the southern edge of town. Inside the building is a collection of over 2,000 types of barbed wire, each with varying barbs, twists, and points, that comprises the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum. At this museum, the devil’s rope isn’t just history, it’s a work of art.
Now, having recently been featured in The Smithsonian’s Eight Unusual All-American Museums, the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum is on its way to becoming a full-fledged tourist destination. ”I have gotten a lot of strange calls at the Chamber Office,” says Diane Morse who works for the LaCrosse Chamber of Commerce. “People will ask about the museum. I say, ‘You’d better come and see it. We’re the Barbed Wire Capital of the World.’ They say, ‘Oh you’re kidding.’ But that’s what put us on the map and we’re proud of it.” Once a means of separating and deterring cattle and trespassers, barbed wire is now a unifying attraction in Kansas, even if it is one of the strangest museums out there.
What unusual museums have you come across in your travels?
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.