DAVID R. WINGATE:
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.,
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
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
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
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
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
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.