The Town of Wingate was chartered by the North Carolina legislature as an incorporated village in 1901. This village was one square mile, a half mile in each direction, north, south, east and west from the center of town.
Prior to the charter, in 1896, Meadow Branch Baptist Church and other local Baptists decided to build a “school of higher learning” on 10 acres of land donated by Marsh Stewart. The school was to be named “Wingate” in honor of a former President of Wake Forest College, Washington Manly Wingate. During the school’s founding, the village now known as Wingate was then called Ames Turnout, a name given to honor one of the foremen in charge of construction on the railroad in Wingate.
In 1874, the Carolina Central railroad was built through the town that we now know as Wingate. The only building in the area was Meadow Branch Church, later known as Wingate Baptist Church. Meadow Branch Church was within the right of way of the railroad and was moved to the opposite side of the tracks. Although the railroad system has changed names, the railroad still operates through Wingate today. A village developed along the railroad’s route.
WM. Simpson built the first house in the community and it is still standing today. The current mayor resides in that house. WM. Perry built the second house of the community on what is now known as North Main Street. Wingate University’s Pharmacy building is now located on that spot. The Daniel Mullis house was built in the late 1800s and was used as a post office as well as a home. Mail was delivered by horseback to the house, and Mullis sorted and delivered the mail to the recipients.
The year 1896 brought a definite change to the village. Acting Postmaster J. Lonnie Austin, Sr., wrote a letter to the U.S. Postmaster General requesting the village name be changed to Wingate to be consistent with the name of the new school, the Wingate School.
Wingate’s first commercial building was built in 1896. John Williams built the first store building on the south side of the railroad track near a dirt road, now known as U.S Highway 74. The building was used as a general merchandise store.
The long-standing Sam W Hinson house, located at the corner of U.S Highway 74 and South Main Street, was the home of Wingate’s Town Hall for several years until 2016. Hinson’s house original slate roof had to be removed and replaced in 2013.
Wingate is Born!
Wingate’s first mayor was J. Tom Lowery, and the first commissioners were WM. Perry, John W Outen and J. Lonnie Austin, Jr. Following Mayor Lowery, eight mayors have served Wingate, including H.K. Helms (Big Kemp Helms), Sam W Hinson, Wade Flowers, Jack Perry, Bernard Helms, Wayne Edwards, George Gerding, Tom Walters, Phil Loudermilk, Tony Maye and current Mayor Bill Braswell, Jr.
The first mayor’s office was a small, unpainted wooden building on Highway 74, just east of the current McDonald’s. In about 1936, Mayor Big Kemp Helms built a brick structure on North Main Street. This building became the Wingate Barber Shop and is still standing.
Before World War II, Wingate was known primarily as a farming community as well as a cultural center because of the Wingate School. A familiar phrase, “Cotton is king!” described the town. Because Wingate was a farming community, children were needed to make and harvest crops. The public schools in the area had split sessions so children could help their families with the farming duties. Almost every home had a barn, at least one cow for milk, a chicken pen, a hog pen, a garden and a mule or horse to help with the gardening.
The town’s first industry arrived in the early 1900s. Perry Mill Company, owned by WM. Perry, bought lumber hauled in by wagon or truck by the saw millers. Company workers prepared the lumber for shipment to other destinations. The company was also known for its cotton gin which ginned hundreds of cotton bales during the fall. The grist mill was available to people so they could take corn and have it ground into meal. Perry Mill Company’s steam whistle sounded work time, lunch time and fire emergencies. The mill continued to operate until it was purchased by Helms Industries after World War II.
In 1909, the first bank in Wingate was founded. WM. Perry and Marshal Stewart were two of the principle stakeholders for the bank which continued to operate until the 1960s when it was acquired by another bank. Wingate’s old bank building still stands on North Main Street across from the post office.
From the early 1900s to the mid 1900s, after World War II, up to five independent grocery stores operated in Wingate. At least two of the stores began as general merchandise stores. An assortment of items could be bought at a general merchandise store, including groceries, plow points, rope, horse collars and even caskets.
The Wingate School
From the beginning, the Wingate School was a boarding school, a “paying school”; therefore, elementary school children and older students boarded wherever there was a free room. In fact, many families moved to the Wingate area and built houses so children could attend the Wingate School. Because of the school and its followers, a depot was built on the north side of the railroad track. In the early 1900s, the State of North Carolina began to support the elementary grades. In the beginning, classes were held upstairs in the J.J. Perry store building.
Wingate School’s first state supported building was located between the L.J. Watson and Olin Austin houses on North Main Street. The two-story, wood frame building had no electricity and no plumbing. Outdoor privies were available for students, one on the north side and another on the south. One privy was for the girls and the other for the boys. There was also a pump available for drinking water. Mr. White was the first principal of Wingate School.
In 1927, a two-story brick building was built on Bivens Street and it held all grades. All Union County High Schools were consolidated and integrated in 1960, and thus high school students began class at Forest Hills. The Wingate School grew to become Wingate Junior College then Wingate College and then Wingate University.
Then & Now
Wingate formed a volunteer fire department in 1948, and bought a 1937 Chevrolet fire truck that had been used by Benton Heights in Monroe. The fire department had no formal organization. In fact, there was very little water available to fight fires. An alarm would sound for a fire and those available at that moment would jump on the truck to help. Wingate’s fire department continued to gain a better water supply and in 1960, a new firehouse was built on North Main Street beside the railroad track. Wingate Volunteer Fire Department is now an organized and well-equipped department that serves the town and the surrounding areas.
Before 1955, there was little need for police protection in Wingate. Around 1955, J.B. Whitley was hired to serve as the policeman for the town. Now, an organized police department exists in Wingate and is led by Chief of Police Donnie Gay.
In the 1930s, Wingate’s population numbered fewer than 1,000 people. Wingate Junior College had about 200 students. By 2007, the population of Wingate was 4,071. Wingate University now has over 2,000 students, which includes those enrolled in the Pharmacy School and Physician Assistant Program.
According to the late Walt Perry, “The town of Wingate continues to grow, although at a very moderate rate, but is a highly desirable place to live and raise a family.”