Barbed wire collector says unique finds ‘bring back history’

It can only mean one thing if Mike Call slams on the brakes while driving down the highway — barbed wire.

Call’s been known to spot a new type of barbed wire while driving 50 mph down the road, said his wife Patty.

"When you go speeding down the highway and he hits the brakes and backs up, you know we’ve passed barbed wire," she said. "He says ‘I just saw another barbed wire I don’t have.’ I say ‘How do you know at 50 mph?’ He says ‘I just know.’"

Call, 78, of Fallon, Nevada, is a barbed wire aficionado and a member of the Antique Barbed Wire Society and the California Barbed Wire Collectors Association. Call and others share their love of barbed wire and the history it represents during meetings like the Western Collectibles Show, sponsored by the California Barbed Wire Collectors Association. This year’s show will be held in Minden, Nevada.

"The whole idea is to bring back history," he said. "We’re trying to keep the collection of barbed wire going. We want to keep people interested in history."

The free show, sponsored by the California association, is typically held in the Southern California or Las Vegas area, Call said. This is the first year it will be held in northern Nevada.

Call first became interested in barbed wire after seeing a small collection in 1969 at a state fair. He bought a book about it, and "I took off from there with collecting," he said.

Barbed wire was first patented in the mid-1800s. More than 1,000 barbed wire types were patented, Call said, and even more were made without patents.

"There are some rare pieces out there that are just absolutely beautiful," he said. "I never cut a farmer’s fence. I always walk the fence long enough . that I can find a piece."

When barbed wire was first patented it was sold by the pound rather than by the foot, Call said. The goal was to make wire strands that were both light and effective. Wires with elaborate barb patterns that were heavier didn’t last long, due to their cost. Those are among the most coveted by Call and other collectors.

"That’s what I like about it — looking at the different designs people came up with," he said. "It’s intriguing to me how innovative people are."

One rare type of wire known as "Black Death" was used in the Virginia City area, Call said. Discarded pieces of wire used to haul ore out of mine shafts were repurposed into barbed wire. However, sections of the wire broke off, fell into fields and were eaten by grazing livestock. Animals that consumed the pieces eventually died. Once ranchers realized what was happening, they stopped using the wire.

Call has traveled throughout the country to collect wire. His favorite location to collect was in Kansas, where ranchers who lacked access to trees for fence posts used 250-pound limestone blocks to string up their barbed wire.

He has never traveled overseas to collect, but an uncle once brought him back pieces from Italy and Germany.

"He had a hard time getting that briefcase on the airplane," Call said with a smile.

In addition to collecting, Call now focuses on making displays for barbed wire. He mounts pieces onto old barn wood and labels the wire with its name and the year it was patented. His displays range from simple pieces shaped like the silver state to large pieces that sell for several hundred dollars.

Call and numerous other collectors will have their pieces on display during the Western Collectibles Show at the Carson Valley Inn. In addition to barbed wire, other historic types of wire such as check row trip wire, once used for planting crops, will be on display.

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