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Barbed Wire and the Frying Pan Ranch: A Shared History

In November 1874, Joseph Glidden of De Kalb, Illinois, received the patent on his signature invention – the barbed wire that fenced the West — a patent he later sold to the company that became US Steel. For several years Mr. Glidden doubled production annually selling the wire to farmers in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. Then in 1878, he sent his young son-in-law, William H. Bush, to look at a ranch for sale in the Texas Panhandle and determine if it would be suitable for fencing. That began the story of the Frying Pan Ranch, just west of Amarillo. The original fence was 10 gauge and much of the original west fence is still standing.

Joseph Farwell Glidden in 1858. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Within a few decades, barbed wire was fencing ranches across the country and changing ranching forever. What it allowed was designation of private ownership of land. What it made impossible was the nomadic life of the Native Americans, mostly Comanche and Kiowa in the Texas Panhandle, who had been forced onto reservations in Oklahoma late in the 1860s. Next, it ended the iconic cattle drives from ranches in Texas to railway hubs in Kansas and primed communities to bring the railroad into the Texas Panhandle. It also set up the ecological degradation that has turned prime shortgrass prairie with multiple springs and watering holes into scrub forests of mesquite and cholla.

A cowboy working a horse at the LS Ranch, Texas, 1907. By Erwin E. Smith, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Frying Pan was ranched in the “conventional” way for over a century, with large pastures grazed for many months at a time and cattle concentrating around windmills and ephemeral dirt tanks. William Bush never lived on the ranch but visited for several weeks at a time twice or three times a year until his death in 1933. He had suggested to his wife that she sell the ranch, but that was the depth of the Dust Bowl, so she held on. It revived considerably in the 40s, suffered through the severe drought in the early 1950s and recovered again thereafter, but each time with less topsoil, less diversity, less reliable water and more mesquite. The ranch has been leased, for the most part, with two families operating it from the 1950s until 2019, when Ranchlands was chosen as the successor. William Bush’s granddaughter, Mary Emeny, and her son Tim Ingalls had both taken classes in Holistic Management and were looking for lease partners experienced in that way of working. Ranchlands chose Nick Baefsky and Amy Wright to head up management of the Frying Pan. With the assistance of NRCS, a pipeline has been put in to get reliable water to tanks the whole length of the ranch, which allows for much greater rotation than was possible before. Hotwire is used to sub-divide the pastures.

A section of barbed wire fence at the Frying Pan Ranch. Courtesy of Mary Emeny.

It is interesting to contemplate the unfolding story of place with the unfolding story of technology. Barbed wire and railroad changed the American West forever and set up a chapter marked by ecological degradation. Hotwire and the ability to pipe water long distances is allowing the possibility of much better rotation and with it, regeneration of healthy prairie systems. This chapter in the story of the Frying Pan Ranch is just beginning and already we are seeing improvement, especially in the trampling of high dead weeds, new growth and the return of dung beetles. We are hopeful that over time we will see greater topsoil depth, re-awakened springs, increased biodiversity, and greater profit for us all.

Frying Pan Ranch in the late 1800s. Courtesy of Mary Emeny.

By Mary Emeny. Mary is the granddaughter of William Bush. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Emery first visited the Frying Pan at age six. By age ten she was set on one day making the Frying Pan her home. She moved to the ranch property in 1978 with her late husband Hunter Ingalls. Emery has raised three children at the Frying Pan. Her youngest, Timothy Ingalls, has taken over the management of the ranch.

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