In 1877, John Warne Gates made a display of barbed wire in San Antonio’s Military Plaza. It’s “light as air, stronger than whiskey, and cheap as dirt,” Gates allegedly told the crowd. Gates’ successful display helped make him big in the industry, and he later became famous as John “Bet-a-Million” Gates.
An early citation for the quotation has yet to be found.
Handbook of Texas Online
BARBED WIRE. By the 1870s westward expansion of the agricultural frontier across the Great Plains had been halted by the lack of adequate fencing material to protect crops from cattle. Texas substitutes for the stone and wood fences common in the East included ditches, mud fences, and thorny hedges, the most popular being those of Osage orange or bois d’arc. Bois d’arc is native to Texas and Arkansas, and export of its seed was an early enterprise in Texas. Hedges of it were claimed to be “pig tight, horse high, and bull strong.” Experiments with varieties of thorn hedges and smooth wire failed to solve the problems of plains ranchers and farmers, however, and so their features were combined into barbed wire fences.
On November 24, 1874, Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, was granted a patent for fencing material consisting of barbs wrapped around a single strand of wire and held in place by twisting that strand around another. Known as the “Winner,” this was the most commercially successful of the hundreds of eventual barbed wire designs. Another DeKalb inventor, Jacob Haish, who had applied for a patent on a similar “S barb” design earlier in 1874, undertook a protracted legal battle that failed to halt the progress of the Glidden design. In partnership with Isaac L. Ellwood, Glidden sold his interests, which included other barbed wire patents, to the Massachusetts wire manufacturer Washburn and Moen in May 1876. Ellwood remained an active partner in the new organization as sole agent and distributor for the South and West. Washburn and Moen, eventually absorbed by United States Steel Corporation, had acquired all major barbed wire patents, except that of Haish, by 1876, thus achieving a near-monopoly on this important product.
Henry Bradley Sanborn traveled to Texas in 1875 as representative of Glidden and Ellwood’s Barbed Fence Company. Though he sold the first barbed wire in the state, he failed to exploit the large potential market. In 1878 John Warne (Bet-a-Million) Gates conducted a famous demonstration on the Military Plaza in San Antonio in which a fence of Glidden’s “Winner” wire restrained a herd of longhorn cattle. Gates reportedly touted his product as “light as air, stronger than whiskey, and cheap as dirt.” Sales grew quickly thereafter, and barbed wire permanently changed land uses and land values in Texas.
Handbook of Texas Online
GATES, JOHN WARNE (1855-1911). John Warne (Bet-a-Million) Gates, barbed wire promoter and oilman, son of Asel and Mary (Warne) Gates, was born in Winfield, Illinois, on May 18, 1855. His two brothers were killed early in life and left John an only child at fifteen. He attended school at Gary’s Mill and later took a five-month course in bookkeeping, penmanship, and business law at Northwest College at Naperville. He married Dellora Baker on February 25, 1874; they had one son.
After meager success in the hardware business Gates went to work for the Washburn-Moen Company as a barbed wire salesman in Texas. He arrived in San Antonio in 1876. Inspired by Doc Lighthall’s medicine show, he rented Military Plaza, constructed a barbed-wire corral, filled it with longhorn cattle, and successfully demonstrated the holding power of barbed wire. His demonstration resulted in order for more wire than the factory could produce. Gates returned to Illinois and, upon being refused a partnership in Washburn-Moen, quit. He went to St. Louis, where, in partnership with Alfred Clifford, he built the Southern Wire Company into the largest manufacturer and distributor of unlicensed “moonshine/non-patented” barbed wire.
18 March 1956, Zanesville (OH) Times-Signal, section 4, pg. 3, col.s 2-3:
IN 1874, the production and sale of barbed wire was 10,000 pounds. Six years later it was more than 80 million pounds—but that’s the story of John “Bet-a-Million” Gates, in the Military Plaza in 1877 in San Antonio, Tex.
RESPLENDENT in a dazzling Western outfit he mounted a buckboard and announced he had the best fencing in the world, “light as air, stronger than whiskey and cheaper than dirt.”
22 October 1963, Greeley (CO) Daily Tribune, “Barbed Wire - Born in Illinois And Prospered in Colorado,” pg. 17, col. 3:
“Gents, bring on your cattle, bring on your steers,” the brash, busky young man shouted from his buckboard on San Antonio’s Military Plaza. “This is the best fencing in the world; it’s light as air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dirt.”
5 May 1964, Monessen (PA) Valley Independent, “Barbed Wire Yarn In Texas Retold,” pg. 12, col. 3:
SAN ANTONIO, Tex. (UPI)—Ranchers who thought the new-fangled barbed wire couldn’t hold cattle got a lesson in 1877 from John W. “Bet-a-million_ Gates. Gates erected a barbed wire fence on San Antonio’s military plaza and filled it with 50 rugged Longhorn steers.
Then he bet the assembled ranchers $100 against $10 that the fencing would hold the cattle against anything. He called the wire “lighter than air, stronger than whisky and cheaper than dirt.” Gates got a cowboy carrying a flaming torch to whip the herd into a stampede. The frightened steers lunged into the fence, snapping a wooden post but the fencing held.
29 December 1964, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Gates Sold Them on Barbed Wire” by Frank X. Tolbert, section 4, pg. 1:
BY HIS OWN ACCOUNT, John W. (Bet-A-Million) Gates was the greatest barbed wire salesman in the Old West. With an imaginative but brutal demonstration of salesmanship in San Antonio’s Military Plaza in 1877, Mr. Gates credited himself with convincing prominent cattlemen of the worth of barbed wire.
John Gates came to San Antonio in 1877 as a traveling salesman at $30 a week and expenses for Col. Isaac Ellwood, a pioneer manufacturer of barbed wire and, later, the owner of the Spade Ranches in West Texas.
4 March 1972, Eureka (CA) Times-Standard, pg. 3, col. 1:
Alan Linn in “Smithsonian,” a magazine of the Smithsonian Institution, March issue, tells about the wire that changed American Western history.
“This is the finest fence in the world,” John W. Gates told a crowd of cattlemen assembled on San Antonio’s Military Plaza. “It’s lighter than air, stronger than whiskey and cheaper than dirt.”
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (1) Comments • Friday, October 26, 2007 • Permalink
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