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Gates, Whiteleather families: A storied legal partnership

January 14, 2011

The Whiteleather history begins with an ancestor, Andrew Whiteleather coming to America in 1775 with the Hessian troops from Germany to fight the colonists. After the war, he settled in Ohio.
Three generations later, in 1891, Professor David Vorhees Whiteleather moved from Ohio to begin a “Normal” school in Larwill. During school vacations it was reported that he read law in the office of P.H. (Harry) Clugston and E.K. Strong.
In 1894 D.V. was admitted to the bar and traveled back to Ohio to bring a bride, Keturah H. Essick back to begin their married life living on North Line Street in Columbia City. At this time all that was necessary to become a lawyer was to prove he was an acceptable citizen with high morals. Later, it would require advanced degrees.
D.V. served as prosecutor of Noble and Whitley counties, the 33rd judicial circuit at the time, from 1898 to 1903. He was affiliated with the Democratic party.
In 1889, Benton Eli Gates began to practice law in Columbia City in a partnership with John C. Wigent lasting until 1894. At this time he joined forces with “pioneer lawyer” Judge James S. Collins who had practiced law in Whitley County since 1844. Collins died in 1898. The Gates’ were affiliated with the Republican party.
The first pairing of Gates and Whiteleather was in 1904, with Benton and D.V. in a partnership which lasted until 1921.
During that time, Gates organized and became the first president of the Farmer’s Loan and Trust Bank in Columbia City.
In 1921, Gates’ two sons, John E. and Ralph F. had completed their education to become lawyers and Gates and Gates Law Office was formed. Whiteleather joined forces with Benton J. Bloom to form Whiteleather and Bloom which located above the First National Bank in Columbia City. (Ralph Gates went on to become the Governor of Indiana serving from Jan. 8, 1945 to Jan. 10, 1949)
According to an old newspaper clipping, the Whiteleather and Bloom partnership came about because they had been retained to defend a Fred Decker, who had been indicted by the grand jury in Kosciusko County as implicated in the murder of Leroy Lovett. Decker’s brother had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the same murder. Fred had been made the beneficiary of a $25,000 life insurance policy that his brother had just taken out and it aroused suspicion that he was also involved.
Benton Eli Gates died the following year, 1922, and in 1928 another son, Benton Earl Gates joined the firm.
Benton Earl took office as Prosecuting Attorney for Whitley and Noble counties Jan. 1, 1931 and 10 days later “the Noble County Bank and Trust Company of Kendallville, the largest banking institution outside of the city of Fort Wayne in Northeastern Indiana, closed,” Gates stated in an article in The Bulletin by the Whitley County Historical Society,
The bank officers were convicted of Banker’s Embezzlement under Gates’ prosecution, which was “the only crime that we could indict and convict under.” But many other banks were closing in Indiana at this time, and the Supreme Court reversed all the decisions.
Gates and Gates engaged in civil practice of law, trial practice and corporate and probate law in the state of Indiana generally. They were general counsel for several corporations as well.
In 1937 John Whiteleather, son of D.V. and Keturah, opened a law office in the old bank building at South Whitley to practice law there. D.V. died in 1942 and was the president of the Whitley County Bar Association at the time of his death.
Sons and namesakes of both John Whiteleather and Benton Earl Gates came into the picture later, now holding the patriarchal positions in the family: John Whiteleather, Jr. and Benton Earl Gates, Jr.
It was 1994 when the Gates and Whiteleather names were joined in a partnership again, Bloom, Gates and Whiteleather when Richard Gates, brother of Benton Jr. joined them. Benton Jr. was the only Gates left at the Gates Law office from that time until the present.

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