John Warne (Bet-a-Million) Gates, barbed wireqv
promoter and oilman, son of Asel and Mary (Warne) Gates, was
born in Winfield, Illinois, on May 18, 1855. His two brothers
were killed early in life and left John an only child at
fifteen. He attended school at Gary's Mill and later took a
five-month course in bookkeeping, penmanship, and business law
at Northwest College at Naperville. He married Dellora Baker on
February 25, 1874; they had one son.
After meager success in the hardware business
Gates went to work for the Washburn-Moen Company as a barbed
wire salesman in Texas. He arrived in San Antonio in 1876.
Inspired by Doc Lighthall's medicine show, he rented Military
Plaza, constructed a barbed-wire corral, filled it with longhorn
cattle,qv and successfully
demonstrated the holding power of barbed wire. His demonstration
resulted in order for more wire than the factory could produce.
Gates returned to Illinois and, upon being refused a partnership
in Washburn-Moen, quit. He went to St. Louis, where, in
partnership with Alfred Clifford, he built the Southern Wire
Company into the largest manufacturer and distributor of
unlicensed "moonshine/non-patented" barbed wire.
His later achievements included ownership or
control of Consolidated Steel and Wire Company, Illinois Steel
Company, American Steel and Wire Company of Illinois, and
Republic Steel Company. He invested in the building of the
Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad from Kansas City to
Sabine Lake, Texas; the road later became the Kansas City
Southern Railway, which Gates controlled. By 1900 Patillo
Higginsqv had dug a 2,000-foot
well on Spindletop (see SPINDLETOP OILFIELD), but he ran
out of money before he struck oil. He applied to Gates for
financing, and Gates formed the Texas Company (now Texacoqv), in
which he owned 46 percent of the stock. On January 10, 1901,
Spindletop blew in. Gates urged construction of pipelines and a
refinery and furnished $500,000 for the purpose. In addition to
forming the Texas Company he constructed new docks; built the
First National Bank in Port Arthur, the Port Arthur Light,
Power, and Ice Company, and the Plaza Hotel; and contributed
$60,000 to build Port Arthur Business College.
He gambled at poker, the stock market, and
horse races. In 1900 at a horse race in England he bet $70,000
on Royal Flush with 5½-to-1 odds and won $600,000. Rumors had
him winning over $2 million and said he had bet a cool million,
a fabrication that gave him his nickname.
Early in 1911, ill with kidney ailments and
diabetes, Gates developed a malignant growth in his throat. He
went to France in July, but doctors operated too late. He died
on August 9, 1911. His funeral in the grand ballroom of the
Plaza Hotel in New York City was conducted by Rev. Wallace
McMullen of Madison Avenue Episcopal Church and Rev. J. W.
LaGrone of Port Arthur. Flags in Port Arthur and on the Texas
Company vessels flew at half mast, and crepe was displayed on
the locked doors of other Gates interests. Gates left his
fortune to his wife, their son, and selected others. His charity
contributions included Mary Gates Memorial Hospital in Port
Arthur and St. Charles Home for Boys. Mrs. Gates later gave
funds to establish Gates Memorial Library in Port Arthur, the
forerunner of Lamar University at Port Arthur.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Herman Kogan and Lloyd Wendt,
Bet-A-Million!: The Story of John W. Gates (New York:
Bobbs-Merrill, 1948). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History
Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Sidney A. Brintle
- Handbook of Texas Online, s.v.
(accessed March 4, 2008).
(NOTE: "s.v." stands for sub verbo, "under the word.")
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