man named John W. Gates went to San
Antonio in 1876 with a new product to sell, something that inventor
Joseph F. Glidden of Illinois called "barbed wire." To get
potential customers' attention, Gates and partner Pete McManus rented
Military Plaza, constructed a corral made entirely of barbed wire
and filled it with longhorn cattle. Inspired by the theatrics of a
medicine show he had just seen, Gates hawked his new fencing material
as "light as air, stronger than whiskey, and cheap as dirt."
Despite their best efforts to escape, the longhorns
stayed put in the corral. The Washburn-Moen Company, which had recently
purchased Glidden's business and hired Gates and McManus to sell the
product, soon had more orders than it could handle. Gates figured
he had done a pretty good job for the company and asked to become
a full partner. When the company said no, Gates started the Southern
Wire Company and made money in a manner usually referred to as "hand-over-fist."
Not everybody welcomed the new fence, not because it didn't work but
because it did. Though it marked a final blow to open range and the
frontier it represented, the barbed
wire fence's day had so clearly arrived that it became the wire-of-choice
all over the country.
Gates continued to do well for himself. In 1900, he financed a down-on-his
luck oil prospector named Pattillo Higgins as part of the formation
of the Texas Company, better known today as Texaco. Gates built pipelines
and refineries in his winter home of Port
Arthur, and when the
Spindletop gusher blew in January of 1901, Gates found himself
in control of Port
Arthur's docks, refinery and the railroad needed to get the oil
Gates is remembered today as John
"Bet-A-Million" Gates because he liked to bet on things, and he
had a lot of money to wager. In 1900, he attended a horse race in
England and bet $70,000 on a horse with 5-to-1 odds and won $600,000
when the horse named Royal Flush hit the finish line first. As the
story was told and retold, the bet grew to be a million dollars and
gave Gates his famous nickname. The fact that he would bet on anything
such as a race between two raindrops rolling down a window
pane kept the moniker in place.
wire had replaced most of the old straight wire fences, which
people began to trash or give away. A South Texas rancher named August
Kaspar, a curious and creative sort, noticed all the straight
wire discarded in local pastures and began gathering it to make baskets.
Using nothing more than a pair of wire pliers, imagination and know-how,
he fashioned baskets designed to help him carry corn shucks and hay
on the ranch. So many friends and neighbors expressed a desire for
his wire baskets that Kaspar had to buy cutting and straightening
machines to keep up with demand.
While Gates made a fortune from the invention of barbed wire, August
Kaspar made his fortune from what it replaced. He moved to Shiner
in 1897 and opened the Kaspar Wire Works in 1898. Business was good
and Kaspar was a good businessman but, for whatever reason, he was
never able to get a patent on his baskets, which allowed competitors
to start their own companies without paying royalties.
Kaspar responded by diversifying into the manufacture of horse muzzles,
chicken coops and eventually coat hangers, gym baskets, shopping baskets,
fly swatters, display racks, vending machines and newspaper racks;
by the 1990s the company was producing as many as 70,000 newspaper
racks a year for distribution worldwide.
Today, Kaspar Wire Works, still located in Shiner,
is a subsidiary of Kaspar Companies. In the spirit and company tradition
of changing with the times, Kaspar produces a wide range of products
for a diversified and far-flung clientele.