John Warne (Bet-a-Million) Gates, barbed wire 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, 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 Higgins 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 Texaco), 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.
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Herman Kogan and Lloyd Wendt, Bet-A-Million!: The Story of John W. Gates (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Sidney A. Brintle,
“Gates, John Warne,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 27, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
November 6, 2019