All because of barbed wire …
First he tried sauerkraut, then he tried gold – but it was barbed wire that made Isaac Ellwood rich. Very rich. So rich that more than a century years later, the Ellwood family is still one of the top 100 landowners in the U.S.
Isaac and his wife, Harriet, (which sounds very much like Ozzie and Harriet when a tour guide is guiding her tour) settled in DeKalb, Illinois and went to work on proper wire for proper fences. He invented one, but ever the good businessman – when his wife told him that his down-the-road neighbor Mr. Glidden had made a better barbed wire – he trashed his own invention and partnered up with the neighbor.
Smart move. This was all happening shortly after the Civil War and the country was expanding – causing farmers and ranchers to need good fences (no longer being able to allow their cattle to roam on the plain – well, at least not without parameters).
As the money came in, Mr. Ellwood built a home for his family – an elegant home with three floors, turrets and a ballroom … two bathrooms – the only indoor bathrooms in DeKalb at that time. And electricity – back in the 1890s when no one else had electricity. And a phone even though DeKalb proper was not wired for phone lines. And cars – both he and his wife enjoyed driving. And a separate building just for his wife’s souvenirs from their travels.
He also respected education and gave money and land for the construction of Northern Illinois University.
Once Mr. Ellwood had the barbed wire – he needed a place to put some fences so he started buying up ranch land in Texas. According to our tour guide, the Ellwood property in Texas is the largest single-family owned ranch to this day which equals 240,00 acres. (She explained that the King Ranch is owned by two families.)
The Ellwood House in DeKalb is a open to the public – the grounds have recently expanded to include another house owned by their son. (The most recent residents gave it back to the foundation.) The visitor’s center has a small museum which focuses on barbed wire (obviously), the house (obviously) and several sleighs and old cars.
Our tour guide was passionate and knowledgeable and I don’t think we could’ve asked her many questions that she couldn’t have answered. She talked about the family and the details of how they were restoring the house.
Patience, one of the granddaughters, died just two years ago – she had lived in the house as a little girl and worked with the foundation in restoring it as it had been. She was able to talk family members who still had furniture that was originally part of the house – into donating it to the restoration so most of what is in the house is authentic.
You might wonder how many people care about touring a house financed by barbed wire – but there were more people there than at many of the president houses we’ve visited and it included everyone from small children to older people.
Speaking of president houses – I almost made it to Teddy Roosevelt’s house out on Long Island this year, but alas, not going to happen. However, Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the Ellwood House when he visited Illinois.