For several years, KERA has been checking in with Brooks Gremmels, the man who bought and renovated the East Texas town of Ben Wheeler — building galleries, restaurants and music clubs. Gremmels was diagnosed with cancer last year, and he died Sunday night in Tyler at age 70. KERA’s Anne Bothwell has this remembrance.
- Listen to the story that aired on KERA today.
- Read previous coverage about the Gremmels and Ben Wheeler
Brooks Gremmels always said he didn’t start out with a grand plan for the town of Ben Wheeler. He’d owned a data service company. He’d been a motorcycle racing champion. He made his fortune in oil and gas. When Gremmels and his wife, Rese, decided to retire, they chose Ben Wheeler. It wasn’t far from Tyler, where he was born.
“The buildings were vacant,” he said in an interview last fall. “Roofs were gone. Doors were missing and the weeds were growing through the sidewalk. So we went to work to see if we could recapture the sense of community that must have existed before.”
Today, Ben Wheeler is still a small bend in the road. But you can hear live music and eat great food at Moore’s General Store or the Forge bistro. Fine artisans and gallery owners set up shop, lured by rents that ranged from rock-bottom to free.
Gremmels was as generous with humor and fun as he was with money. He had Ben Wheeler declared the Feral Hog Capital of Texas, then he created a huge party to celebrate what others find a nuisance. And boy do they celebrate – There’s a hog queen, a parade with hog floats, and a pig bus. Instead of candy or mardi gras beads, plastic pig noses fly into spectators hands.
“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?”
Gremmels knew he was ill last fall. “I’ve got some health issues that have come into play,” he said. “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.”
Well before he was diagnosed, the Gremmels set up a non-profit foundation for the town. It’s hard to imagine Ben Wheeler without him. Hopefully, folks there plan to keep the pig noses flying.