Listen to KERA’s Friday Conversation with Brooks Gremmels:
When Brooks Gremmels and his wife Rese retired to Ben Wheeler about eight years ago, they bought and renovated much of the tiny unincorporated town. They created art galleries, shops, two restaurants that both feature live music, and a library that gives away free books weekly to kids. They convinced selected artisans, including a hat maker, an embroidery expert and a master knife maker, to relocate to the town by offering them space, rent-free. They’ve created a non-profit foundation for the town, and obtained a federal grant to install a sewer system. And they had it designated the Feral Hog Capital of Texas. Which gave them a good excuse to throw the annual Fall Feral Hog Follies, crown a Hog Queen and drive around in a pink school bus outfitted with a giant pig’s nose and ears.
Jerome Weeks first introduced us to Gremmels in a memorable story a few years ago. Today, if you ask Gremmels why he did all this, you might get a short answer. The Gremmels retired to Ben Wheeler, because it’s near Tyler, where Brooks grew up. And why fix up the town?
“I needed a place where I could go for a beer.”
In the Friday Conversation for KERA FM this week, though, Gremmels got serious enough to catch us up with Ben Wheeler. Some excerpts below.
What really inspired his effort:
“Poor Ben Wheeler had suffered the fate that so many towns had after the Second World War… Some towns came out winners, some didn’t. Ben Wheeler did not. The buildings were vacant, roofs were gone, doors were missing and weeds were growing in the sidewalk. We went to work to see if we could recapture the sense of community that must have existed before. We started rehabbing buildings we moved buildings to town, we got liquor permits for our restaurants and set about dedicating, from that point, a real effort to creating a town.”
Why the arts and music are key in Ben Wheeler:
“That’s everything in our vision, the arts and the music….You can find a little bit of everything an hour and 15 minute drive from Dallas. You just think you’re in another world. You come across this tiny little town that’s all new.You can hear music when you roll down the window and see art when you get out of the car.”
The Fall Feral Hog Festival is coming up next weekend, Oct. 25 and 26, in Ben Wheeler. The theme this year is “High on the Hog.” And maybe you, dear reader, would like to be the next Hog Queen:
“It mostly takes a really good attitude. You gotta have a skit. And you gotta have a talent.”
(Rese Gremmels tells me later that one winner’s talent was Hula Hoop.)
Or at least, you could dress like a Hog Queen and march in the parade at 10 a.m. Oct. 26:
“Everybody is invited to be in the parade. We have room for you. You can ride in our pig bus which is a school bus, bright pink, with a 9-foot hog’s nose and ears. You can ride on the Queen’s Float. We have room for about 35 children on that float. We will throw out to the crowd roughly 5,000 pigs noses. We expect people to wear these pig noses and they do.”
But seriously, what does Gremmels get out of this whole experience?
“I will say this has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t expect to be given an opportunity to do anything along the lines of putting together a town. Who would expect that they would be able to do that?
“I’ve got some health issues that have come into play. As I look at that, I begin to understand why I was in such a hurry to get this stuff done. There was a real reason for doing this, I just didn’t understand it at the time. But as it is, it’s all just worked out really well.”