Gremmels Transformed Ben Wheeler
My dad grew up on a farm just a stone’s throw north of Ben Wheeler, Texas, during the 1920s and 30s. It was a thriving town then with a bank, cotton gins, corn mill, drugstore, hotel, hardware store, two mercantile stores, and his uncle Willie even had a blacksmith shop there at one time.
Dad and his family went to town as often as a poor farm family could — it was a magical place to a boy who got to buy his own first store-bought shirt, get a handful of candy for a penny, run through the dirt streets playing with neighboring kids and watch his dad trade horses and other animals with the hundreds of townsfolk that gathered on weekends. He often told us stories of his birth town and the fond memories he had of it and the school he attended there and most importantly the people of the community.
But after World War II, like so many small towns, the majority of people left the area to find work in larger cities like Dallas. That’s what my dad did too. He and my mom moved to the suburbs of Dallas and raised our family there and worked for almost 40 years.
Along with the closing of most of the businesses in Ben Wheeler, the school shut down as well eventually and merged with the neighboring town of Van.
In just a short time Ben Wheeler became a virtual ghost town with a handful of people hanging on to a struggling economy. It was certainly not a place anyone wanted to go any more and was poked fun of more often than not as a falling-down old town.
It was no different when my parents retired back to my dad’s old home place in the early 1980s. Sadly, Ben Wheeler was dead.
Some time after my parents moved back to the farm, I moved to San Antonio. I made the drive up to see them several times a year and Ben Wheeler was the last little town I’d drive through before arriving at their door.
Each time as I pulled up to the stop sign where FM 773 joined 279, I would hope for a sign of life in that old ghost town that had once been so full of energy. Each time I was disappointed and usually asked my dad to talk about his youth there again on my visit to try to imagine it in its glory days.
On one visit I was surprised. As I turned the corner onto 279 I saw a half-burned out flickering lighted marquee with an arrow attached to one of the old buildings in downtown Ben Wheeler. I was so excited — no matter how dim that light was, maybe it was the start of a come back. It turned out to be a video store and sadly it was gone and the town was completely gray again by my next visit.
In 1997 I moved to the family farm and Ben Wheeler became my address. It was at this time I became curious as to who Ben Wheeler the man was and found out he was the postman that first carried cherished letters to the surrounding farmers — that’s one of the things people would do when they came to town back in the day was to pick up mail that reconnected them to loved ones far away.
Besides the post office, there wasn’t much reason to go to Ben Wheeler. It had grown even sadder over the years as people lost pride in the community. Most of the downtown and surrounding area was grown up with weeds and briars and unsightly junk littered way too many yards and businesses. To most it was just an ugly spot in the road with a blinking light to go through on their way to Tyler.
I attended a few meetings with people in the surrounding area that wanted to do something about sad Ben Wheeler but our efforts then didn’t produce anything of note.
A few years later, a curly-headed man with a major pep-in-his step began to appear around town. It was Brooks Gremmels. He and his wife Rese built a home on a lovely spot three miles southeast of town but to get there often they had to drive through the unsightly junk yards of Ben Wheeler. That happened one too many times for Gremmels and he began to dream of better possibilities for Ben Wheeler.
A master historian, Gremmels did his research and discovered the town as it was in the 1930s in its heyday and knew that’s the way he wanted to see again, alive with people, energy, and prosperity.
He began buying and redeveloping property — which he placed in a charitable trust called the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation — and cleaning up trash-ridden and tall-grass areas creating parks for special events and restoring old downtown buildings.
Signs began to appear around town that stated, “Ben Wheeler Matters.” People took notice. Some began to clean up their yards too.
On July 4, 2008, Gremmels and his growing team of supporters held a festival in a new park he’d created complete with a small stage which quickly became the Pickin’ Porch Park. Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Ben Wheeler for the first time in more than 50 years and met many of their neighbors.
That same year he started the Fall Feral Hog Festival, which drew about 4,000 visitors to this little community. The idea was to poke fun at the annoying feral hogs that cause havoc and serious damages sometimes in the area. Soon, Ben Wheeler was named the official Wild Hog Capital of Texas.
Gremmels saved a number of old buildings from being torn down in the community and others from neighboring towns that he moved to Ben Wheeler. Moore’s Store, once the town’s mercantile store, became a fun restaurant and live music venue. The old blacksmith shop became The Forge Bar & Grill. An old potato shed is now the Flying Fish art gallery. Another group of old shops now house Scoots ‘n Scoops motorcycle and ice cream shop, Made in America novelties, and The Hat Doctor, and several other refurbished buildings are home to The Blue Moose, Secret Garden Embroidery, Walking Horse art gallery, and Harrison & Son Knifesmith. The Old Elwood Schoolhouse became a children’s library where each child gets to take home a few books each visit to keep. Harmony Chapel adds charm and provides a wedding and meeting venue for the town.
After the first event on July 4 in 2008 the Pickin’ Porch Park became a regular hang out for the community to gather on the backs of pick up trucks to listen to music. People began to come to jam on Thursday nights and soon the park was filled with families to visit, listen to music, and dance. Now there is live music every weekend packing the dance floor at Moore’s Store and the porches and beer garden at The Forge.
In just a very few short years, Gremmels successfully returned Ben Wheeler to a thriving community like it was in the 1930s and then some. And no one enjoyed the fruits of his labor more. To the delight of residents and visitors alike he cheerfully visited intently with everyone he met and often jumped on stage to dance, sing, or play his harmonica, or give one of his eloquent, heart-filled speeches to crowds who always grew silent to hear what he had to say, usually about his gratitude for everyone else, and often with his quick-witted humor that brought many smiles to all that where fortunate to catch a spark of his infectious energy.
Sadly, Gremmels passed away January 26 after a year-long battle with cancer. Those who knew him a lot longer than his Ben Wheeler family say he lived a very full life long before he arrived in this one-horse town. He had prosperous careers in technology, oil, and music and has a family that loved him beyond measure.
In this last phase of his full life’s journey he chose to share his dreams in a big way and his grand finale breathed life into a tired old town and rebuilt a community of grateful friends, young and old, from near and far. The memories he created and his vibrant spirit will forever be part of the town of Ben Wheeler, Texas.
To learn more about Ben Wheeler and the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation which continues the work began by Brooks and Rese Gremmels, visit www.benwheelertx.com.