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Texas Trails

published: August 6th 2021
by: Clay Coppedge

Wired Up in Texas
    A 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 Glid-den’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, its refinery and the railroad needed to get the oil to market.
    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 finished 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.
    Meanwhile, barbed 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 built a building to produce the baskets full time opening 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. So do the makers of barbed wire fences.


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