David R. Wingate, Sawmiller and Judge

Orange was able to grow and become a viable part of Texas history due to two things, the Sabine River and the proximity of thousands of acres of virgin pine and cypress timber. One of the men who saw a great future, both for himself and Orange was David R. Wingate.

Wingate was a descendant of some of the original colonists who had settled in the Carolinas in the 1600s. His ancestors were settlers who had built plantations and been a part of the British establishment in the colonies.
 
Wingate’s great-grandfather had been a representative to the Carolina Congress and one of the signatories who declared loyalty to the state and the united colonies. He and his son both fought with Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, and allowed Marion and his men to stay on the plantation.

When Wingate was a young boy his family moved from South Carolina to Hancock County, Miss. In 1839 he married Caroline Morgan. They soon became the parents of seven children. He began to work in logging camps and sawmills and by 1849 he owned his first sawmill.

One of his uncles had fought in the Texas Revolution and had written back home to tell about the forests of East Texas. In 1844 Wingate had made a visit to Texas and seen the vast forests and the amount of land available for settlement.

In 1852, he sold his investments in Mississippi and moved his family to Newton County and established a large plantation near the Belgrade/Farrsville/Cow Creek area. In seven years he had built a productive plantation that produced 350 bales of cotton and made him the largest cotton planter in Texas.

He wanted to return to his roots in the sawmill business and by 1859 he had purchased the abandoned Spartan Sawmill at Sabine Pass and built it into the largest steam powered sawmill in the state. Along with the mill he operated a fleet of schooners to transport his lumber to markets along the Gulf of Mexico.

Early in the Civil War, in April, 1861, he and his son enlisted in the Sabine Pass Guard. He also began blockade running. A schooner and 500 bales of cotton were lost when the schooner ran aground and was burned to avoid capture by the Union forces. On Oct. 21, 1862 a Union Navy patrol invaded Sabine Pass and burned both Wingate’s sawmill and his residence; both were total losses. He moved his family back to the Newton County plantation. The plantation had continued to prosper, producing between 200 and 500 bales of cotton each year.

Wingate’s love of being a sawmill owner led to him moving his family to Orange in 1873 to seek new opportunities in the lumber industry. In 1878 he had begun the D. R. Wingate and Company sawmill. In 1880 a fire destroyed the mill at a loss of over $50,000. The demand for lumber stayed strong and he built a larger mill to replace his loss. His larger mill was capable of producing as much as 90,000 feet on lumber and 125,000 shingles per day.

Fire struck this mill, causing a loss of another $50,000. The planing mill and stacked lumber was saved. Insurance covered about half his loss. By this time he was 71 years old and tiring of the business, but friends talked him into creating a stock company. He did so and D. R. Wingate and Company was re-established. His new venture was fueled by his desire to keep his more than 100 employees working. The new mill also burned, but it was two years after Wingate’s death.

He had been a person who felt an obligation to care for  his employees and to give to his community. Before his arrival in Texas he had served as a judge in Hancock County, Miss. In 1861 he had been appointed Confederate States marshal for the Eastern District of Texas. From 1861 to 1863 he served as county judge of Newton County. In 1878 he became county judge of Orange County and served until 1884.

In 1890, after several years of illness, Caroline Wingate died. Her funeral was the largest recorded in Orange County until that time. After her death the old sawmiller went into a new venture, rice farming. His farming venture was successful and added new commerce to the region.

On Feb. 15, 1899 Wingate died of pneumonia and was buried next to his wife in Evergreen Cemetery in Orange. His funeral became the largest seen in Orange.

By all accounts both of the Wingates were loving, kind people. They cared for their employees and the slaves they had owned. Even the decedents of some of the slaves have recounted how well they treated their ancestors. He was a man who refused to bow to misfortune. In spite of his many losses, he was one of the wealthiest men in Orange County when he died. In 1979, the Texas Historical Commission erected a commemorative marker at Wingate’s grave site.

One of Wingate’s relatives, the late Jim Wingate, authored a family book with a heavy focus on D. R. Wingate. The book, “From Sawdust to Gavel” is a family history that relates the many ventures and accomplishments of the Wingate family in the region. The Wingate family have been important contributors to Orange in fields as varied in later years as the grocery business and law.

The 83rd annual Wingate Reunion will be held in Orange this June.