Saturday, March 02, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History  March 3

Methodists Challenged by Gates to Raise Money for College in Port Arthur, March 6, 1910

Although gambling was and continues to be condemned by Methodist teaching, in he early years of the 20th century Methodists teamed up with John “Bet-a-Million” Gates (1855-1911) in the founding of Port Arthur College.   Gates was one of the most prominent risk taking entrepreneurs of his era.  He came to Texas as a barbed wire salesman in 1876.  He devised one of the most brilliant marketing stunts in advertising history.  Gates hired Military Plaza, erected a barbed wire corral.  He filled it with longhorns and showed that the wire could contain even those powerful creatures.  The stunt resulted in more orders than the factory could produce. 
He fell out with his employer and started his own barbed wire manufacturing.  His Southern Wire Company was a huge success even though he neglected to respect the patents in effect for the product.  

Although the originator of what later became the Kansas City Southern RR was Arthur Stillwell, Gates also invested in the company and eventually took it over from Stillwell.  The original financing had been from Dutch banks who proposed to send Dutch farmers who knew about dike canal engineering to grow rice on the coastal plains—hence the name of the city of Nederland.  When Spindletop blew in, the area became known for its petroleum industry and farmers deserted the farms to go work in the oil fields. 

Gates saw Port Arthur as a grand city, and it did develop into one of the most important petroleum refining centers of the world.   One factor in civic development would be a college.  Gates teamed with the Methodist Episcopal Church, not the Methodist Episcopal Church South to build the college.  Overlooking the well known Gates reputation for gambling on horses, the stock market, and cards, the Methodists partnered with him and Port Arthur College came into being.
Methodist education in Texas had been strictly “classical” since the beginning.  In other words Methodist colleges stuck to what we would call a liberal arts curriculum teaching the sciences, languages, mathematics, humanities, and fine arts.  Port Arthur College would be different.  In response to the needs of a modernizing society, it would teach business classes---stenography, radio, bookkeeping, telegraphy, and associated subjects.   The best analog today is probably coding schools or schools that teach video game design.  

Gates put his stamp on Port Arthur, and the college did well, but Gates did not live to see it.  He died in August 1911.  His funeral was held at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  The ministers who officiated were the Revs. Wallace McMullen of Madison Avenue Episcopal Church in New York and J. W. LaGrone of Port Athur. 

Footnote:   The MECS church in Port Arthur—one of the largest in the state during the 1920s and served by future bishop W. C. Martin was named “Temple.”  Why not “First”, because the MEC church was First Methodist.  Port Arthur College eventually became part of Lamar University.   The MEC established another college on the coastal plains being settled by immigrants from the North. It was located in Alvin.  


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