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DeKalb’s Jacob Haish remembered in historic home of rival

Jacob Haish’s penchant for innovation continued for decades after his famous barbed-wire breakthrough.

Haish lived from 1826 to 1926, dying three weeks shy of his 100th birthday. Decades after he invented the S-barb design of barbed wire in 1875, Haish kept busy crafting a table with animal designs and a three-wheeled wheelchair to help him get around.

Although he was best known for barbed wire, Haish’s local legacy can still be seen today through his donations to area hospitals and libraries. Some of Haish’s furniture and other belongings are on display at a new exhibit at the Ellwood House Museum, 509 N. 1st St., DeKalb.

“We’ve always featured Haish in the barbed wire gallery,” said Brian Reis, Ellwood House executive director. “This is the first time we’ve looked at his decorative arts and furniture.”

Haish is an icon in DeKalb since he was one of three original inventors of barbed wire. The other two barbed-wire barons are Isaac Ellwood and Joseph Glidden, who partnered against Haish and ultimately won in an 18-year battle to secure the patent for barbed wire. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Glidden’s patent in 1892.

Although Glidden’s version of barbed wire was more popular and remains in use today, the Jacob Haish Manufacturing Co. was one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of barbed wire.

Residents can learn about Haish at the exhibit, which is located in the Ellwood House visitor’s center and will be open for at least the next three years. Visitors can look at the exhibit for free from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Some of the furniture that Haish owned and is on display include a desk that can be converted into a bed and chairs made with 22 different animal horns. The Nehring family, owners of Nehring Electric Works Co. in DeKalb, provided much of the furniture to the Ellwood House after claiming it at a public auction.

There is a picture of Haish’s mansion at the exhibit as well. Haish lived in a mansion built in 1884 on the corner of Pine and 3rd streets in DeKalb. The mansion was demolished in 1961 and is now a parking lot for First Lutheran Church, 324 N. 3rd St., DeKalb.

The Haish mansion is one of the most interesting things about Haish, said local historian Steve Bigolin, who has studied Haish for more than 40 years. Since he had no children, Haish left ownership of his house to its last housekeeper, who used the home until her death in the early 1950s.

First Lutheran Church then used Haish’s estate for six years as a Sunday school and for other church activities. They put the mansion for sale in 1955 for $25,000, the same price they bought it for, to raise funds for Haish’s goal of having a hospital named after him, Bigolin said.

Chuck Raymond, then co-owner of the Daily Chronicle, and Vic Sarich, a former DeKalb police chief, both were interested in the home, but neither man bought it, Bigolin said.

“The police chief at the time went to the bank and said the $300-a-month mortgage was inconceivable,” Bigolin said.

The mansion was demolished in the summer of 1961, and Haish’s goal of having a hospital named after him never came to fruition.

However, the demolition of the Haish mansion did spark local interest in preserving historic buildings and might be the reason that the Ellwood House survives today, said Agnes Ma, a curatorial assistant at the Ellwood House, who helped put the Haish exhibit together.

“[The Haish mansion] probably should have been kept,” Ma said.

Although his mansion is gone, other buildings in DeKalb have a Haish connection. Haish’s funds helped build the Haish Memorial Library and Haish Gym in DeKalb, as well as Northern Illinois University’s original library, the emergency room at the original Kishwaukee Hospital that bore his name, a former DeKalb opera house, and the west wing of the former DeKalb Public Hospital, which was dedicated under his name. The former hospital is now Barb City Manor.

Those involved in creating the Haish exhibit at the Ellwood House talked about Haish’s impact in the community and his personality, including his court disputes with Glidden and Ellwood regarding the barbed wire patent, Ma said.

After a small victory during the long legal battle in the 1880s, Haish displayed copper-chromium rooster weather vanes on top of all the buildings he owned to celebrate. In a later court proceeding that he lost, he was vocal in his disgust for the judge who ruled against him, Bigolin said.

“This was a chance for us to highlight him in a better light,” Ma said.

If you go

What: The Jacob Haish exhibit

Where: Ellwood House visitor’s center, 509 N. First St., DeKalb When: 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Admission: Free

Jacob Haish biography

Born: March 9, 1826, in Bavaria, Germany

Died: Feb. 19, 1926

Known for: One of original inventors of barbed wire

Legacy: Donations led to building DeKalb Public Library and Kishwaukee Hospital emergency room, among others

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