The History of Joliet – Chapter 23

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“He was forseeing enough to understand that there would be an immense industry built on barbwire fencing.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

Barbed wire helped to settle the American frontier. And much of the barbed wire that stretched across the nation was produced by Hiram SCUTT in Joliet.

Early settlers used thorns and sticky shrubs along with rail and rock fences to keep in their livestock. But that all changed in 1873 when Joseph GLIDDEN invented barbed wire in DeKalb.

Hiram SCUTT saw that barbed wire at the DeKalb County Fair and thought he could improve upon the idea. His ideas made him a wealthy man.

SCUTT was a young man when he came from New York to Joliet during the spring of 1861. He was a teacher looking for a job. But the job he found here was that of a soldier in the 2nd Illinois Artillery unit, which was then recruiting in Joliet.

He fought for four years in the Civil War and was part of General William T. SHERMAN‘s army that captured Atlanta. Returning to Joliet after the war, SCUTT married Ada WARD, a native of the city.

He taught school, was a traveling salesman and worked several other jobs in mills before he had his first look at barbed wire. He recognized what the new fencing method could do for farmers all over the world.

“He hammered away at the various devices until he succeeded in getting something of his own pattern, which was patented,” the Joliet News reported in its 1887 Business Men’s Edition. “He was forseeing enough to understand that there would be an immense industry built on barbwire fencing. The immense waste and care of rail and board fences would naturally be superseded by the neat, economical and substantial barbed wire.”

The idea behind barbed wire was a fence that could protect livestock and at the same time reduce the danger of injury of animals to a minimum. Barbed wire claimed the open ranges in the Western plains states and turned those areas into farms with crops.

In 1874, the year after barbed wire had made an appearance in DeKalb, SCUTT had opened his first plant, H.B. SCUTT and Co., in Joliet. Within two years, he was selling his design of barbed wire in great quantities.

But his plant burned down in 1876. He quickly rebuilt and put in new machinery. By this time, there was a patent war going with all kinds of lawsuits challenging various patent rights. A dozen and a half Joliet businessmen had received barbed wire patents for three dozen various designs.

Tons of the barbed fencing was being produced in Joliet. In 1884, some 33,500 tons of barbed wire had been made that year in Joliet, with an estimated value of $2.5 million. These plants employed hundreds of workers.

That year, SCUTT sold his barbed wire company for a large profit. But he immediately started up a new company called the Joliet Barb Wire Co.

With his new wealth, SCUTT built a mansion on a hillside along Broadway. Made from Philadelphia bricks, the house overlooked a beautiful view of the city and cost $25,000.

“His energy has left its imprint upon the business of this community,” the 1887 Business Men’s Edition said. “Starting in Joliet with absolutely nothing but a good healthy brain and body, Mr. SCUTT has earned his way to the top.

“The success of the barbed wire idea has made Joliet famous all over this country, and in fact pretty much so in other countries of the world. And a large share of the credit is due to SCUTT. As a citizen, he is progressive and patriotic in motives. His influence and work is thrown on the side of public improvement and good government.”

With his son, Frank SCUTT, serving as plant superintendent, SCUTT continued to produce barbed wire in Joliet through the 1880s. SCUTT owned several two-point and fourpoint patents for barbed wire. The best known was the design he had started with known as the SCUTT four-point barb.

“He is absolutely independent in his ideas of business when he gets hold of what seems to him both practical and useful in the shape of machinery and patents, he is not slow to avail himself of them,” the Joliet News said of SCUTT. “He has a knack of doing a lively business and doing it methodically …

“No one man has done more to bring business and wealth to Joliet than SCUTT.”

Unfortunately, Hiram SCUTT‘s life was cut short in 1889 when he was killed by a fall from a horse in Lake Geneva, Wis. But the mansion that he built still stands in Joliet. Next Saturday: Joliet Police Chief Frank Murray and the robbery of the Kansas City No. 5 train.

Published September 1, 2001