Bates lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. He subsequently taught himself to tap dance with a wooden peg leg. His uncle, Wit, made his crude first “peg leg” after returning home from World War I and finding his nephew leg-less.
Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show 22 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of England in 1936 and then again in 1938. He retired from the dancing business in 1996.
He owned and operated the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, New York, from 1951 to 1987, along with his wife Alice E. Bates. This made Bates the first black resort owner in Ulster County in the Catskill Mountains, the famous Borscht Belt of Jewish resorts, hotels, and bungalow colonies.
He was also very active in the local Ellenville Lions Club, and during the last ten years of his life he traveled regularly to schools, senior citizen centers, and nursing homes showing a video about his life and talking about his life experiences. He also helped found a local Senior Citizens Center in the Ellenville / Kerhonkson area.
He loved to tell youngsters that they could do anything they wanted. He would say “look at me.”
Bates performed at an award ceremony at Hillcrest High School in his honor for receiving “The Order of the Palmetto.” the highest civilian awarded by the state in his hometown of Fountain Inn, South Carolina. He collapsed on his way to church a day later, and died on December 8, 1998, at age 91.
The citizens of Fountain Inn erected a life-size statue that can be viewed in front of the city hall and Robert Quillen’s library. There are signs at the entrance of the city saying “Peg Leg Bates’ home town.”
He was part of the first Louis Armstrong tour of Britain in the mid 50’s
PBS made a documentary of his life in the 1980s. The South Carolina ETV made a documentary about Bates in the early 2000s.
He is survived by his only child, daughter, Melodye Bates-Holden and her husband, Preston Holden. They live in Kerhonkson, New York.