Devil's Rope Museum - Barbed Wire
A museum of barbed wire -- that's what The Devil's Rope Museum is -- can't help but raise questions. One of ours was: "Do you stock band-aids?" And they do.
Barbed wire has many fans in the Texas panhandle. The prairie provided no trees or rocks to make fences when the settlers arrived. They couldn't separate the crops from the cows. Did they throw up their hands and give the land back to the Indians and Mexicans? Heck no! American ingenuity came to the rescue in the form of barbed wire -- thousands of varieties -- and most of them are on display in the Devil's Rope Museum.
"Barbed wire gave us boundaries, gave us ownership of land," said Delbert Trew, a retired panhandle rancher and the museum's curator. "You couldn't drive up and down the highways if it wasn't for barbed wire."
The museum promises to show "more barbed wire designs than you can imagine." Walls are filled with thousands of varieties of wire mounted like the spokes of wagon wheels, each strand tagged and identified. Large, padlocked cases display the rarest types, such as the Cocklebur and Dodge Star, which Delbert said are worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars for only a few inches of wire.
But not all barbed wire is desirable. Delbert walked us back to an exhibit on "War Wire," designed to be far more vicious than ranch wire because, unlike valuable cow leather, it doesn't matter if human skin is ripped to shreds. "It's a nasty, dirty, dangerous, cruel thing when you use barbed wire against your fellow man," Delbert said. He showed us displays of digging tools, cutters, mauls, salesman samples, fence posts made from limestone.
Delbert then hammered and cranked out some fresh barbed wire on a home-built contraption assembled from parts of a windmill, "another invention that tamed the Old West." It's a demonstration that he obviously enjoys giving for visitors.
Fascinating? To a point. Delbert conceded that "you don't find many women interested in barbed wire and barbed wire tools," so the museum also exhibits barbed wire art, dozens of examples, including a life-size jackrabbit, snake, coyote, rattlesnake, and an armadillo with a spring for a tail. One piece, a barbed wire cowboy hat, was made by "a hippie in Santa Fe or Taos," according to Delbert, but most of the art was made by Delbert himself.
"Have you ever been cut by barbed wire?" we asked the rancher. Delbert rolled up his sleeves to show the scars. "Do you keep up your tetanus shots?" "You bet," he answered. "Do people ever get confused by the Devil's Rope name?" "Some people," he said. "They think it's some kind of cult museum."
Delbert told us that 70 percent of the museum's visitors are foreign, in part because it's on Route 66 and has a small Route 66 museum. "They've never seen barbed wire before," he said in wonder. "They don't understand it. You take 500 Europeans that come in here, there won't be ten of 'em that actually own where they live. They don't own property. They rent."
Delbert said the museum is always looking for knowledgeable (and thick-skinned) volunteers, but that they're increasingly difficult to find. The museum's wire, however, will remain, shielded from the elements, preserved by the dry air, ready to deliver its message to incautious tourists even if no one is around to explain it.
"Barbed wire teaches you," Delbert said. "You don't need but one lesson."