Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Interesting People: John Warner Gates

True story...my American history essay question on the "teacher test" (MTEL) was to name two inventions that affected the American settlement of the West. The two obvious answers to me were the railroad (duh) and barbed wire. Barbed wire is one of those things that seem in retrospect to be obvious...put little things that hurt on a piece of wire, and that will keep people from getting in, or more importantly in those days, cattle from getting out.

Though an invention that simple rarely has one official inventor, a driving force behind the adoption of barbed wire was one John Warner Gates. Gates emerged as a marketer of the new product and sold it across the country in the mid- to late 1800s.. His role in spreading the use of barbed wire not only changed American history, but it gave him a bankroll.

That's where it gets interesting.

Gates was a high roller when being a high roller meant something. In fact, the most difficult thing is divining truth from legend about Gates. His nickname was "Bet-A-Million", quite a sobriquet considering that one mil would be worth about $25 million today. The legend grows from a $50,000 wager that netted Gates $600,000...not a million, but not chump change either. While betting on a horse running those odds isn't suicide, it was quite a risk. Gates became a gambler for whom the public cheered.

Gates would bet with all the big rollers of the day, including J.P.Morgan. The two were business familiars and would lay a friendly wager or two. According to legend, the two made a wager that would have bankrupted Gates. He pleaded on his knees to be dispensed from his obligation, which J.P. Morgan agreed to do provided Gates left New York for good.

So Gates went down to Texas and found oil, working his way back up to an indolent lifestyle. Strange that this man has almost disappeared from American consciousness after his lavish and bold lifestyle. Maybe if his family had not nixed the idea of a biopic staring Bing Crosby, that wouldn't be the case today...

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