Cates, J. W. (1847-1918)

Variant Name(s):

John Wesley Cates


North Carolina, USA


  • Burlington, North Carolina


  • Builder

Building Types:

John Wesley Cates (September 30, 1847-January 10, 1918), a native of present Alamance County, joined with his brothers, William and Berry, in the 1880s in a modest contracting and building materials supply business known as J. W. Cates and Brothers. Most of their projects were for constructing small dwellings and commercial buildings for industrializing communities.

Personal information about John Wesley Cates comes from various sources, including an article in the Burlington Daily Times-News of February 4, 1954, based on oral histories from the family, and the finding guide to the related Cates Family Papers at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

John Wesley Cates was born to William and Sarah Cheek Cates in the section of Orange County that became Alamance County. According to family history, John Wesley’s father served in the Confederate army and died as a prisoner of war in Virginia in May, 1865, after the war was over. The widow, Sarah, and her six children moved to the Alamance County community of Saxapahaw, where they went to work in the cotton mill. In 1869 J. W. married Sarah Patterson, and in 1880 they moved to the town of Company Shops, home of the North Carolina Rail Road’s repair shops, which was later renamed Burlington and became a textile manufacturing center.

J. W. Cates worked for a time as a carpenter for the railroad and with the firm of Zachary and Cates; carpenter and builder Henry Clay Zachary—see Zachary and Zachary—was a relative by marriage. Early in the 1880s J. W. established his own firm, which manufactured coffins and building supplies and engaged in construction. The most prominent member of the firm, J. W. ran the shop in Burlington, made estimates and occasionally drawings, and sent materials to his brothers who worked on the building sites, sometimes assisted by semi-skilled workmen. His wife, Sarah, died in 1884, and J. W. remarried in 1885, to Sarah Elizabeth Scott, and the couple had eight children. He became a civic and church leader in Burlington, a founder of the First Baptist Church in Burlington and town mayor. Sarah died in 1917 and John Wesley died in 1918.

By the time of his death, John Wesley Cates’s two brothers had moved to Florida. Daughter Bertha Iona Cates (1887-1982), who had worked with her father in the business, continued as manager thereafter and eventually took charge of the company, which dealt in coal as well as lumber and building supplies. Said to have been the first woman coal merchant in the South, Bertha Cates helped to establish the North Carolina Retail Coal Merchants Association and served as treasurer and vice-president. Further research in the Cates family papers may identify specific building projects.

  • Catherine W. Bishir, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood III, Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (1990).
  • Finding Guide, Cates Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.