AN EAST TEXAS CAPTAIN OF COMMERCE
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 9, 1980, p. 11-G.
Sources: For a more detailed record, as well as the footnotes citing various Galveston "News" accounts, see W. T. Block, "An Early East Texas Captain of Commerce: David Robert Wingate," TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, XIII (Nov., 1977), 59-79.
Once in a great while, the frontier history of East Texas has revealed a pioneer who clung to his goals and ideals against all odds and with the tenacity of a barnacle. In April, 1980, the Orange County Historical Commission dedicated a state marker to just such a person, who was one of the earliest industrialists of Orange, and in fact anywhere in the South. David Robert Wingate could be labeled as a frontier East Texas captain of commerce in both agriculture and industry, one whose vocabulary did not know the meaning of the words "quit" or "fail."
As fate thrust one adversity after another upon him, he quite literally, like Job of the Old Testament or the phoenix of mythology, rose from the ashes to rebuild and restructure his life, dreams, and plans anew for tomorrow. History records quite sufficiently that just to have lived on the Texas frontier of 1850 was test enough of itself of a pioneer's fortitude. Comanche Indians raided over a large area, and there were no roads, autos, trains, hospitals, supermarkets, miracle drugs, television, modern technology, nor anything else that goes to make life in the twentieth century so comfortable.
Daily living was particularly harsh for everyone, including the 'well-to-do' of that era, who had none of the technological advances and labor-saving devices that even poor families take for granted today, although slavery enabled some to avoid the back-break labor endured by others. Life expectancy was only 35 years, scores of young mothers died in childbirth, one of every two babies never reached adulthood, and the necessities of life literally had to be wrenched from the soil rather than from the fast food counters that exist today. It took lifetimes of endurances and sacrifices of such people as D. R. Wingate, people who were not only willing to penetrate the wilderness, but also remained to fell the forests and found the cities, thus making possible the good life so taken for granted by all who are living today.
David Robert Wingate was born in Darlington County, South Carolina, on February 20, 1819. As a toddler, his parents moved to the Pearl River delta region of Mississippi, east of New Orleans, where he received a rudimentary education in the common schools and grew up among the log camps and primitive sash sawmills around Pearlington. Hence, it was no quirk of fate that his life was destined to revolve around the timber industry.
At age twenty, Wingate married Caroline Morgan, a native Mississippian, which marriage resulted in the births of seven children, five of whom reached adulthood, namely, a daughter, Mittie Elizabeth Norsworthy, and four sons, John, Robert Pope, David Rufus, and Walter Jourdan, many of whose descendants are still living in Orange County and neighboring areas. Although Wingate lived in a different century, he shared one aspiration with many people living today. He wanted the best life for himself and his family and the best education for his children that his labor and industry could provide. Nor was he a political reformer of any sort. Born as he was at the beginning of the Victorian Age, he possessed all of the conservative philosophies of his peers of that era. He accepted the institutions on slavery and States Rights politics, including the 'right to secede,' as being natural byproducts of the times in which he lived.
He was also very much a part of the Southland that he lived in and loved, and in 1861, when Secession ignited the furies of war, his allegiance, as were those of his neighbors and friends, was soon with the new Confederate States of America. And having accepted the institution of slavery, he would likewise have to accept the institution of emancipation, eventually freeing about one hundred slaves of his own when the Civil War ended.
There is no way that an adequate record of such a life can be confined to a single page of newspaper type. For a detailed account of Wingate's life, the reader would need to consult the writer's biography of him in the November, 1977, issue of "Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record."
Suffice it to say that perhaps no other man in early Southeast Texas faced such a series of adversities over a span of fifty years. And in every instance, he refused to surrender to misfortune, but began immediately to plan and recoup his fortunes, beginning with whatever he could sift from the ashes and debris. During his lifetime, Wingate suffered a half-million dollars in uninsured losses, mostly to fires, and it hardly requires a business education to translate that figure in yesteryears' currency into today's inflated dollars.
During the 1840s, before leaving Mississippi, the family lost two minor children, and Wingate's first sawmill at Pearlington burned. He soon rebuilt, however, later selling out when he moved his family to Newton County, Texas, in 1852. At that time, Wingate owned 83 slaves, and when he, his father, R. P. Wingate, and his brother-in-law, Alfred Farr, moved to Texas, they brought 165 Negroes with them.
Wingate bought 2,700 acres in Newton County and began extensive farming on its 600 cleared acres, for he had a multitude of mouths to feed. In 1859, the Wingate plantation there owned nine horses, 18 mules, 24 oxen, 65 milk cows, 100 steers, 150 sheep, and 400 swine, and in the same year, produced 350 bales of cotton, 4,000 bushels of corn, 1,000 bushels of peas and beans, 1,500 bushels of sweet potatoes, 700 pounds of wool, 1,000 pounds of sugar, and 560 gallons of molasses. His plantation grew one-sixth of all the cotton grown in Newton County during that year.
Ultimately, Wingate's first love of sawmilling was bound to surface again. There were millions of feet of timber stumpage around the plantation, but no market for sawed timber as there was no way to get it to market. However, Wingate discovered a large sawmill at Sabine Pass, Texas, that lay abandoned and rusting in 1857, and he soon bought the Spartan Mill Company, with its three circular saws. In March, 1858, Wingate moved his family and 13 of his slaves there and began the process of building the new Wingate Mill Industries into the largest of their day in Texas. During 1859, the sawmill cut 7,488 saw logs, rafted down Sabine River and Lake, into 2,496,000 feet of sawed lumber, worth $43,600. He soon built his own fleet of lumber schooners for exporting his products coastwise and to the West Indies. He soon expanded his business to include:
". . . . A sash, door, and blind factory and shops that turned out windows and door frames. He manufactured cisterns and tanks. . . .He also turned out special patterns of some of them that were sent to Mexico and Cuba. He was during a fine business in lumber, tanks, and sugar vats with the West Indies when the War Between The States came on and put a stop to shipping. In 1861, he finished sawing up logs and closed down with at least 1,000,000 feet of choice shop cypress and several million feet of lower grade cypress and pine stacked in his yard."
During the summer of 1860, the boiler of the sawmill exploded, killing and maiming several employees, but Wingate immediately rebuilt it. In 1861, with export commerce stifled, he soon turned to blockade-running for a new livelihood. One of his lumber schooners en route to Cuba with cotton was captured by the Federal navy. In 1862, he bought the steamer "Pearl Plant" and attempted to run the blockade with it with 500 bales of cotton aboard. However, he ran the steamboat aground on the mud flat at Texas Point, and he and his crew had to burn the boat and cargo to avoid capture and then wade ashore.
Earlier in the war, he had donated all the logs needed to built old Fort Sabine. In August, 1862, a deadly yellow fever epidemic reached Sabine Pass, and Wingate evacuated his family to Newton County, where they remained throughout the remainder of the war. On October 21, 1862, a Union Navy patrol came ashore at Sabine, burned Wingate's sawmill and planing mill, in addition to Wingate's palatial residence, which still was filled with expensive furniture and the only piano in the town.
From 1862 until 1874, the Wingate family remained on their large plantation as the owner's feet once more became implanted in the soil. Already, the plantation had been known as the showplace of Newton County, turning out between 200 and 500 bales of cotton annually over a long period of years. In 1873, Wingate bought the river sternwheeler "Ida Reese" in Galveston and began freighting his and his neighbors' cotton to the coast. But the "Reese' was soon snagged and sank with a load of cotton in the Sabine river, a total wreck. The writer reckons that the loss of three ships and their cargoes amounted to at least $50,000.
Early in the war, the oldest Wingate son, John, went to Jasper and enlisted in Capt. B. H. Norsworthy's company, soon to see its first action at the Battle of Shiloh. Young Wingate lost his only picture of his sister Elizabeth on the battlefield, and Norsworthy found it. The latter offered to return the picture only if Wingate would introduce Norsworthy to the sister. The couple were married at the war's end, but John Wingate, after having survived some of the bloodiest battles, was killed by a buggy horse three months later. Wingate then raised his infant grandson, John, Jr., as his own child.
In 1873, David Wingate and his wife moved to Orange, for the thrill of the shrill sawmill whistles was calling once more. He bought a one-half interest in Eberle Swinford's Phoenix Mill, which consisted of a shingle machine which cut 80,000 cypress shingles daily and a circular sawmill. But Wingate soon tired of a business in which he had to share decision-making, and in 1877 he sold out to Charles H. Moore, a Galveston lumber dealer.
In the same year the old sawmiller began the new mill of D. R. Wingate and Company, which was completed in July 1878. The capacity of its gang and circular saws was 35,000 feet daily, and its first order consisted of 250,000 feet of crossties for the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1879, the mill cut ten million feet of lumber and two million shingles, worth $100,000. But as always, disaster seemed to be lurking somewhere in the sawdust, and on November 29, 1880, the new mill burned to the ground, a $50,000 loss.
Casting aside little more than a sigh, Wingate began rebuilding a much larger mill to cost $60,000, and by May, 1881, Wingate and Company's gang saws were whirling again. Throughout the 1880s, sawmilling was immensely profitable, and Orange's railroad could carry lumber both east and west. At no time did the supply of lumber match demand, and large quantities were shipped from Orange aboard a fleet of 25 lumber schooners. Wingate's production averaged from 70,000 to 90,000 feet daily of lumber, and his shingle machines turned out from 75,000 to 125,000 daily. But again, disaster was lurking somewhere in the shadows, and on June 1, 1890, the fourth of five sawmill fires destroyed the new Wingate mill.
Because the planing mill and all the stacked lumber was saved, Wingate's net loss was $50,000, of which one-half was covered by insurance. For the first time, Wingate showed no inclination to rebuild, for by then he was 71 years of age and was tiring of his occupation. But friends talked him into creating a joint stock company, which soon rebuilt the sawmill and D. R. Wingate and Company was back in production. Eventually, this mill also burned, but it happened in 1901, two years after Wingate's death. After 1890, Wingate took no active part in the lumber firm he was president of.
Also in 1890, Wingate's wife died after several years of a crippling illness, and one might think the old pioneer might be content to retire. But a new and immensely profitable "toy," rice farming, had just arrived in the county, and Wingate was not content until he was a rice farmer as well. Apparently he felt unfulfilled unless he had his hands in sawdust and his feet in the soil. Between 1893 and 1896, Wingate made three large land purchases, totaling 625 acres, near Orange. In December, 1892, he harvested and shipped 300 barrels of rice, which was a part of the first box car of rice ever shipped from Orange County. By 1897, Wingate was harvesting 2,500 barrels annually. His son-in-law, Major Norsworthy, was perhaps the second largest rice planter in the county, and was the owner of the county's first steam thresher as well.
In 1898, Wingate's only daughter died, and the old sawmiller appears to have lost his lust for life thereafter. In November, 1898, already becoming rather enfeebled, he suffered a prolonged case of influenza, which gradually developed into pneumonia, and he died on February 15, 1899, only five days short of his eightieth birthday.
D. R. Wingate held a number of coveted titles and positions during his life time. He had served as a judge in Hancock County, Mississippi, before his arrival in Texas. Later he was appointed colonel of the Second Regiment, First Brigade, of Texas Militia, but he left that post in 1861 when he was appointed Confederate States marshal for the Eastern District of Texas. In 1863 he was elected county judge of Newton County, and served until 1866, when he was removed by the military governor during Reconstruction. Wingate could not take the "Ironclad Oath," that he had not sworn allegiance to the Confederacy. In 1878 he became county judge of Orange County and served in that capacity until 1884.
In 1896, at age 77, one Galveston "News" correspondent at Orange described Wingate as being as "supple as many men of forty or fifty years of age, his mind being as clear and vigorous as at any time in earlier days. In July, 1896, the old pioneer sat down with the same reporter and recounted with great clarity and detail his fifty years of sawmilling, which appeared in the "Daily News." The extent of respect and esteem accorded him during his lifetime can be seen in long, two-column obituaries which appeared in both the Galveston paper and a surviving copy of the Sabine Pass "News."
When Caroline Wingate died, her funeral was said to have been the largest ever seen in Orange up until that date, and it was no less so when the sawmiller died nine years later. As to the humanitarian aspects of his life, his decision to rebuild in 1890 was prompted solely by his desire not to leave his one hundred employees without work. Perhaps it can also be observed in a part of his obituary which read:
". . . After his immediate family, the most sincere bereavement is felt among his old ex-slaves, who had never relinquished an imaginary right to rely on him when in trouble, and when their little crops failed, the Judge had always assisted them until the next season enabled them to pull out. It never occurred to a one of them to pay him back, and Judge Wingate did not expect it, but this did not deter the same people from asking him for further help whenever adversity overtook them again, nor did he suffer the recollection of their indebtedness to tighten his purse strings. He could no more resist an appeal from his former slave than from his own child . . ."
With a heart as big as his purse, he thus was ready to help others, but unfortunately he had no one else to turn to but himself during his own hours of adversity.
What made David Robert Wingate the uncommon man that he was, and hence his life worthy of remembrance, was his unique ability to refuse to bow to misfortunes or to suffer defeat at their hands. Mishaps seemed to track and plague the old pioneer unrelentingly, and only a small fraction of the tribulations he endured would have been enough to overwhelm anyone of lesser fortitude.
Wingate was a "mover and shaker" in the Newton, Orange, and Jefferson Counties of his day, as well as in Mississippi. When markets were good, as they were in the 1870s and 1880s, he recouped his losses rapidly. And despite his many losses, he was still one of the wealthiest men in the county when he died. Always a positive doer and thinker, somewhat like the little train that chugged uphill, Wingate always "thought he could" - and he did! That's why his life story contains an inspiration for most everyone who reads it.