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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical :

Bet-A-Million Gates

by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
John Warne Gates, a native of Winfield, Illinois, became associated with three of Texas’ most important items: barbed wire, railroads, and oil.

Gates’ education at Northwest College prepared him for a career in business that seemed to go nowhere at first, then resulted in a massive fortune. After deciding that his hardware store would not produce the income he wished, Gates accepted a salesman’s job with the Washburn-Moen Company, a producer of barbed wire. Texas was his assigned territory.

Gates arrived in San Antonio in 1876, when cattle raising by the open-range method dominated the Texas economy everywhere cotton did not grow, which also meant places where natural fencing materials such as timber was in short supply. To advertise his product, Gates staged a show on San Antonio’s principal plaza. He built a pen of barbed wire and successfully kept a small herd of longhorns inside—something skeptics said could not be done. He then sold more wire than Washburn-Moen could provide. Later, Gates built his own Southern Wire Company into the largest manufacturer of barbed wire in the nation.

Gates’ real fortune came not from wire but from oil, and his story is a classic one for the Texas oil patch. When Gates and others built the Kansas City Southern rail line south from Kansas City to Port Arthur, Texas, he learned of Patillo Higgins’ search for oil in the area between Beaumont and Port Arthur named Gladys Hill by Higgins. Later the oil field there would become world famous as Spindletop when the discovery well gushed in on January 10, 1901.

Part of the financing came from Gates, who organized the Texas Company to get into the oil business. The world knows that company now as TEXACO. Gates built pipelines, refineries, and other oil-industry businesses in Port Arthur, and became a patron of the town.

Gates’ nickname—Bet-A-Million—grew from his indulgence in gambling. Known for his high bets, it was alleged that he once bet $1 million on a horse race and won $2 million. Actually, the bet was $70,000 and the stakes were "only" $600,000, but that is close enough.

© Archie P. McDonald

All Things Historical >
February 6-12, 2005 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.
 
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