J. W. Cates and Brothers (1880s-1910s)

Variant Name(s):

J. W. Cates


North Carolina, USA


  • Burlington, North Carolina


  • Builder

Building Types:

J. W. Cates and Brothers was a modest contracting and building materials supply business that was started in the 1880s by J. W. Cates and his brothers William and Berry. Their contracting work focused on constructing small dwellings and commercial buildings.

The firm operated in the central Piedmont of North Carolina from the 1880s into the 20th century. As discussed by Charlotte Vestal Brown in Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building, the company provides an “excellent example of the village building contractor,” a type important to smalltown and rural areas for many decades. The following account of the firm’s operation comes primarily from Brown’s discussion, based on the John Wesley Cates Papers, North Carolina Baptist Historical Society Collection, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem. Although the firm constructed many small dwellings and stores, no specific standing examples have been identified.

J. W. Cates was the most prominent member of the firm: he 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. The firm’s letterhead read, “J. W. Cates and Bros. Undertakers and Dealers in shingles, lumber, doors, sash, blinds, and coffins”—a typical combination of offerings. The firm’s advertisements in local papers in the 1890s were phrased similarly. As “undertakers,” the Cates firm provided funeral and burial services as well as coffins. In the contracting line, the firm bid on and built, several houses in Durham and Chapel Hill, typically about 600 square feet with a porch and rear ell, costing several hundred dollars apiece. Focusing on frame construction, the firm obtained manufactured items from numerous suppliers and sometimes employed a brickmason when needed. In a few instances, Cates built for investment, such as a four-room rental cottage on Davis Street in Burlington reported in the Burlington News of May 30, 1900. The Cates firm is not known to have built speculatively on a large scale but was employed by industrialists and other capitalists to construct buildings. The Burlington News of June 13, 1900, for example, reported that J. W. Cates of Burlington was “the contractor for the erection of the cottages at Delgado [cotton mill] village at Wilmington.

By the time of his death in 1918, J. W. Cates’s two brothers had moved to Florida. His 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.