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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Animals adjust to barbed wire


by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Because of the nature of the subject, a significant chapter of Old West history - bloody livestock injuries - is often ignored or forgotten. However, it did happen, and here is the story.

Beginning with the invention of barbed wire in the early 1870s and the consequent manufacture and installation of barbed-wire fences across the land, a serious adjustment period occurred as the animals met and tested the prickly barrier for the first time.

Injury, often serious, occurred as pets, valuable livestock, a few humans and the family milk cow came in contact with the sharp points. Livestock owners protested so loud about the injuries that the future manufacture of the product was placed in jeopardy. But the need to protect growing crops and private property was much greater, so the manufacture of barbed wire continued to increase.

Of interest, the livestock learned quickly to stay away from the wire. Manufacturers began making more humane wires with shorter, duller points, some of which turned on the wire when touched by the hides of the animals. The evolution of barbed wire had begun. These injuries also spawned a little-known business that endured for more than 25 years wherever there were animals and fences.

Remember now, this was during the horsepower age and at a time with few educated veterinarians around. The chore of tending the injuries fell to the local community's horse doctor.

Most of these individuals loved animals and had a way with stock, and some had remedies handed down from their elders. The financial rewards were often significant.

The basic treatment of a wire cut was to stop the bleeding and clean, disinfect and coat it with oil to keep the wound supple yet smelling strong enough to keep flies away to prevent screw worms. To produce this evil-smelling but healing potion often led to some fame and a small fortune. Every horse doctor had his "secret liniment" that he bragged "brought miraculous healing."

Many of these more enterprising individuals developed, manufactured and sold their secret potions to the public much like the old-time medicine show man peddled his "miracle tonics" to the public while entertaining with some foot-patting music.

With specially made manufactured bottles too expensive, the horse doctors sent young boys to scavenge empty bottles from town and farm dumps, paying a penny a bottle for the right size containers. Since all bottles of the time were stoppered with corks, they would merely clean, fill, add a stopper and label, and a salable product was born. These products included liniments, oils, salves, balms and healing powders. This is known as the Wire Cut Medicine Era.

Created during the Wire Cut Medicine Era, modern collectors have catalogued more than 150 brands and containers with labels or embossed names. Most say, "for barb wire cuts and scratches." Some even say "for man or beast."

By 1895, the era ended as livestock learned to stay away from barbed-wire fences.

The old-time horse doctors died off and were replaced by licensed veterinarians with patented, government- approved medicines.



Delbert Trew - July 5, 2011 column
More "It's All Trew"




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