the museum of americana

a literary review

A Brief History of Barbed-Wire and How It Affects and Does Not Affect the Life of Hannah Johnson Shoemaker – Fiction by Joyce Goldenstern

The history of the town where Hannah grew up was bound and twisted by wire. About twenty years before Hannah’s birth, three men of the town—a lumber merchant, a farmer, and a colonel—simultaneously and independently invented barbed wire. Tempers flared. Patents got filed. Lawyers got rich. The citizens divided themselves into three factions, each with a name corresponding to the type of wire favored. The “double binds” sided with the lumber merchant, “twisted barbs” sided with the farmer, and the “single pricks” sided with the colonel. Because of the wrangling, the town nearly never achieved its one crowning claim to fame. The lumber merchant, the farmer, and the colonel nearly lost their chance to become millionaires and nearly lost their chance to revolutionize the West, to take their esteemed place in frontier history along with the inventors of the Colt 45, the Winchester rifle, and the promoter of windmills.

Fortunately, however, for them and a few others, enlightened self interest prevailed. The lumber merchant (Mr. Joseph Guilden), the farmer (Mr. Jacob Haishburger) and the colonel (Colonel I. L. Ellston) eventually agreed to cooperate and build together a single huge factory on the east side of town.

Consequently and subsequently, ranchers divided and properly civilized the western United States; Boers corralled British prisoners in South Africa; and American soldiers, veterans of the Spanish American War, fenced in and then shot the followers of Emilio Aquiano far away in a place called the Philippines. The town’s three heroes—the lumber merchant, the farmer, and the colonel—became very rich and had many institutions named after them or their invention.

Born in ignorance, her mind, a blank slate, Hannah knew nothing about all of this that preceded her. During the days of the town feud, Susannah, Hannah’s mother, a small child at the time, had been a “twisted barb,” favoring Mr. Haishburger because he, like her, had come to Illinois from Pennsylvania and was, like her, of German descent. But by the time of Hannah’s birth, Susannah had all but forgotten the fight that consumed the hearts and souls of the townspeople in her youth.

Hannah was in the fifth grade before she learned anything about barbed wire. Suddenly, out of the blue, no one talked of anything else. There was going to be a contest. A poetry contest at Hannah’s school to celebrate thirty years of barbed wire making at the TRIPLE TIE factory on the east side of town. Hannah got caught up in the frenzy. Little did she know she had no chance of winning. As a matter of fact, Hannah would never win a contest of any kind in her life. Maybe that was why she becomes so enthralled some 40 years later, when her brother Petey won a radio contest. She was sitting outdoors on the steps at the time, listening to the first transistor she ever owned, when purely by chance she heard her brother’s voice on the quiz show.

Decy Guilden composed the winning poem. Some judges, members of the school board, thought that her surname added historical completeness, a sense of destiny to their contest.

BLEST BE THE TIE
Blest be the tie that binds
Our twisted wire fence
An untied knot, a triple bond
a safeguard ever hence!
There is no fence like ours,
No other can compete.
To hold the sway of cows away,
Barbed wire can’t be beat!

Hannah applauded as Decy Guilden stood on stage and recited. Hannah applauded as Decy collected her prize of glorious gold dollars. Hannah clapped, and clapped loudly and heartily, without bitterness, without rancor of any sort. There was no doubt in her mind that Decy’s poem stood head and shoulders above everyone else’s including her own. She felt proud to know such a girl.

Aside from and before the lumber merchant, the farmer, and the colonel, Hannah’s town had two other heroes. One was Shabanna, an Ottawa chief, who sided with white settlers during the Black Hawk War. A dark skinned Paul Revere, Shabanna galloped to warn Hannah’s symbolic forebears of midnight raids. He was promised a grove of maple trees near the Kishwaukee River for his services but never received it. The other hero was Baron Johannes DeCalvary, a mercenary-soldier of the Revolutionary War, after whom Hannah’s town was named. No one to this day knows why the town was named after DeCalvary, since DeCalvary never set foot in the Midwest, and his credentials as a Revolutionary War hero were rather shaky for although he fought with Washington at Camden, his reputation for shifting allegiances with compensation had followed him to America from Europe.

Susannah, Hannah’s mother, was an odd, quiet woman who seldom spoke of herself. When she did, though, little Hannah listened, not only with her ears, but with her toes and elbows as well. The tiny hairs on Hannah’s neck and arms absorbed the lilting tones of her mother’s quiet voice. Although Susannah had forgotten about Calvary’s feud over barbed wire, she did tell Hannah one story about wire. It was the day a working crew came to erect the first telephone poles on Lilac Street. “When I was a child, the only wires crisscrossing the skies were telegram wires along the railroad tracks,” she said. “I used to go on hikes by myself, walk along the railroad track. I used to watch birds land on the wire. I have noticed that birds seldom perch themselves very close together. They allow the space of God to surround them.”

Little Hannah didn’t understand very well, but she loved to hear her mother talk about God, not for the meaning of her words, but for the sound of her voice. Hannah best loved the story of how her mother and her family worshiped when they first came to Illinois from Pennsylvania. They, along with other Roman Catholics, had had to hear mass in a grove of trees in the forest outside of town until the Father got enough money to build them a church.

Susannah also told Hannah about Prairie Loo, a game she played with her brothers and sisters as they traveled by wagon from western Pennsylvania to Illinois. “One point if we saw a prairie chicken or gopher, ten points if we saw a timber wolf,” her mother tells her. “Twenty five points if the wolf spoke to us, as he once spoke to Saint Francis.” Obviously times had been different then, the glittering, magical past. Hannah has seen only two timber wolves in her entire life but never heard one speak.

As Hannah grew up, Hannah’s love for her mother became entwined with shame. That her mother was considered a heathen by the townspeople mortified Hannah once she reached the sixth grade. The story of worship in a grove of trees (which baby Hannah loved to hear) now only pointed to the genesis of her mother’s religious perversion. And maybe it was so. Maybe some Bavarian tree spirit stirred Susannah back then, planted its seed, and its seed had grown within her. After her marriage, Susannah stopped attending mass. She did not baptize her children (unless you count toddler swims in the Kishwaukee). She took long solitary walks in the woods and hunted squirrels with a bow and arrows. She read books on theosophy. Eccentric behavior. And in a town that valued conformity, reliability, and enlightened cooperation (the case in point: Guilden, Haishburger, Ellston and their magnificent factory), eccentric behavior gave rise to uncharitable comment.

Arthur, Hannah’s father, was a strict man with fixed ideas about women and many other things. Yet once he assessed the power of the spirit that was leading his wife away from the town and him, he bowed to its superiority. What he did not like or understand, what he could not control, he ignored. She was a good wife in other ways. She made grape jelly, for example. She bore him two children.

Arthur knew something about barbed wire, though he never spoke of it. As a child he had been one of the bound children that worked in the Triple Tie factory on the east side of town. The original factory employed ten of them, ten bound children including two girls, along with twenty adult workers. Hannah knew (though she cannot remember how she knew, surely no one had spoken of it?) that Arthur had been an apprentice and that his parents had died young. (That in part was misinformation. Arthur’s mother died young; she had, in fact, died giving birth to Arthur, but his father, during the time of Hannah’s youth, still lingered, forgotten and broken, on a farm about 50 miles west of Calvary.) That her father had been given up by his family to work is a fact that filled Hannah with horror and compassion. So did the fact that he was an immigrant, not born in the United States but in Norway. She knew, without being told, that she was never to speak of her father’s past.

Sometimes Hannah thought of Arthur as an old timber wolf—one of Susannah’s talking timber wolves who, entranced, had followed Susannah out of the forest one day and then set up house with her. In part, Arthur’s awesome bushy eyebrows and glowing eyes and the tufts of blondish hair that grew on his knuckles and in his ears were what fired Hannah’s fancy. But in part she thought of him as a wolf because of the way he growled commands and short answers to questions and because of his violent outbursts of temper. She had been the direct victim of his temper only twice, but it had been wholly unexpected and undeserved. Hannah was an obedient, mostly quiet child who did not invite discipline or censure of any but the mildest kind. So be it if she forgot once to shut the porch door and allowed a mangy cat to enter? So be it if she once laughed so hard that she wet her pants? Did these mean she deserved to be growled at, to be gobbled whole?

One day when she was six or seven years old, Hannah discovered that her mother worshiped her father. She would never have suspected it, for Susannah seemed so impervious to them all, attentive only to her theosophical books and that tree spirit which called her to her walks in the woods. Hannah discovered the secret quite by accident. She heard a noise late at night coming from the parlor, got up from bed and quietly opened the parlor door. Her mother was there, kneeling on the floor next to a red velveteen chair where her father was sitting. Her mother’s head was buried in her father’s lap. Hannah snuck away, undetected, but she never forgot the scene of her mother’s obeisance before her father.

Her mother’s secret worship had less to do with her father’s power than with his wound. Susannah had bowed before the wounded wolf, not the talking one. Hannah came to understand this from her own feelings toward her father. When Arthur beat Peter, Hannah’s brother, when he knocked out his tooth or bloodied his nose or blackened his eye, Hannah cried. Hannah held her breath. Hannah covered her ears. Hannah promised herself she would leave, as Peter often left, driven as he was from home as Arthur himself had been. But the horror that Hannah felt was as much for Arthur’s hurt as for Peter’s. Some vastly deep and secret wound that drove men to cruelty bound Hannah to her father.

The three original inventors left no heirs or at least not any who wished to carry on their work. Henry Guilden, grandson of Joseph Guilden, could hold no job. The first wife of Hannah’s husband (the first Mrs. Shoemaker) had a brief love affair with him in 1941—a final, half hearted attempt to resurrect passion in her middle age. But this was the slightest of footnotes in the story of barbed wire. Henry Guilden had many such brief love affairs. He drove a Cadillac, bought with his dead grandfather’s wire money. Mr. Haishburger was the last of the three original inventors to retire from the factory. He did so in 1916 as a gesture of protest against a corporate decision to sell wire to the British in their war against the Germans. Soon after, the Triple Tie factory moved to another town in Illinois. During the 1920s, its name was changed to the American Wire Company and during the 1930s to the American Steel Wire Company whose motto was “double-twisted, double-coated, fire-proof, weather-proof, iron-clad, steel-wire fencing.” After World War II, Hannah saw pictures of concentration camps. In the Barbed Town Evening News, an emaciated Jewish man stood behind a barbed wire fence. Hannah, however, did not draw any connection to her town.

By the late 1960s, the American Steel Wire Company had shut down. Hannah noted this briefly, but without much thought. Most barbed wire was now imported to the United States from small countries in Asia. Hannah did not know this. Hardly anyone in Calvary remembered the town’s early glory. As one old timer drily put it in an editorial in the Barbed Town Evening News of July 15, 1966, “All that remains of the once infamous factory is the use of the name ‘barb’ for five businesses (including the very paper for which I write this remembrance), one home for the disabled, and the high school baseball team, our beloved ‘Barbarians.'”

And indeed, by this time, the town was better known for the thriving state college on Logan Street (founded and originally promoted by the forgotten wire heroes) and for hybrid corn and hybrid hogs (symbolized respectively by a corn cob with extended wings and a snouted beast with identical extended wings) promoted by the Calvary Agriculture Association whose ads solemnly proclaimed, “For Whatsoever A Man Soweth that Shall He Also Reap.”

By the 1970s, a curious hobby had sprung up, mostly in the western United States, the part of the country whose history had been so crucially shaped by Calvary’s triple invention. The hobby was to collect various styles—twists and ties and knots—of barbed wire. In some areas, it got to be a problem. Ranchers had to watch out for these fearless collectors who thought it their God-given right to wait until midnight to sneak up and snip away at an honest man or woman’s fence. Hannah read about it in a magazine that a young girl who had once boarded at Petey’s brought to her when she came back to Calvary after living in Madrid, and Hannah was amused by what she read, not because she remembered the long ago poetry contest nor the Triple Tie factory, but only because she thought, some people, SOME PEOPLE, don’t they have anything better to do with their time?

~ ~ ~

Joyce Goldenstern spent several weeks one summer researching the history of Dekalb, Illinois, and six interrelated stories resulted from that research. “A Brief History of Barbed-Wire and How It Affects and Does Not Affect the Life of Hannah Johnson Shoemaker” is one of them. She is very pleased to have it published in the premier issue of the museum of americana.

Read Joyce’s contributor’s notes on “A Brief History of Barbed-Wire . . .”