If you asked me to name the luckiest man in Texas, I’d put my money on John “Bet-a-Million” Gates.
John Gates was a mediocre hardware salesman who took a chance on a new job selling barbed wire (a new invention at the time) for the Washburn-Moen Company out of Illinois. He came to San Antonio in 1876, hoping to sell his barbed wire to Texas ranchers, but Texans were reluctant to believe the prickly strings of wire could contain their rough and hardy longhorn cattle. Whatever Gates was selling, they weren’t buying.
So Gates rented Military Plaza and asked permission to fence it with his new barbed wire. He advertising the demonstration and offered $10 to anyone whose cattle could break through the fence. Ranchers came from far and wide to watch the spectacle. They put their orneriest bulls and their most skittish cows in John Gates’ makeshift barbed wire corral, hoping to win the money, but whoop and holler as they might, none of their cattle succeeded in breaking through the wire fence. Within 90 days Gates sold enough orders to keep the manufacturer busy for more than a year!
Gates went home and asked the Washburn-Moen Company to make him a partner, but they refused, so he quit his job and started his own barbed wire company, which became a great success. Soon he became owner or part owner of several wire and steel companies. He invested in railroads to ship his products. Everything he did seemed to prosper. He began to gamble–at poker, on the stock market, and at horse races–and here, too, his luck held out. At a horse race in England, he plunked down $70,000 to bet on a horse named Royal Flush with 5½-to-1 odds. Royal Flush won…and John Gates won $600,000! This was a great feat, but people began to exaggerate and make the story even grander. They said he’d bet a cool million dollars and won over $2 million. Their tall tales gave John “Bet-a-Million” Gates his nickname.
It doesn’t seem that he minded.
When Pattillo Higgins ran out of money while drilling for oil at Spindletop, he applied to Gates for financing. Gates agreed and started the Texas Company, which became Texaco. On January 10, 1901, Spindletop blew sky high, showering oil on the Texas Piney Woods. Gates had won again! Foreseeing the significance of the boom, he urged the building of refineries and pipelines and put $500,000 of his own money toward the purpose. He invested his money to make himself richer, but he also used it to enrich the lives of the people around him. He built new docks, a bank, an electric company, and a big hotel, and he donated $60,000 to build a business college in Port Arthur. He built a hospital and an orphanage, and after he died his wife continued to use his money to build a large library that grew into a university.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure John “Bet-a-Million” Gates was any luckier than any other man. He just knew how to pick a winning idea and work hard to make it happen. Then he invested wisely and helped other people get “luckier,” too!