- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
Ben Wheeler is not much more than a bend in the road 12 miles east of Canton. You can tell the town is small. It’s named after its first mailman – from back in the 1870s. Benjamin Wheeler delivered the mail on muleback from Canton. But by the 1930s, Highway 64 had bypassed Ben Wheeler, and soon, the town got even smaller.
Stephen Giles has lived nearby for 11 years.
GILES: “How come Bonnie and Clyde left it standing like this? [Laughs.] No, that was just a joke. It had a few stores. They were rusty and falling down and people didn’t have hope for it.”
Then Brooks Gremmels came back, and he’s turning Ben Wheeler into its own arts district.
Born nearby in Tyler, Gremmels moved to Dallas, worked as a beer distributor and concert promoter, founded his own data service company. In his 50s, he took up racing motorcycles; he even won some sprint championships and established Shogun Motorsports, his own autoparts company — and racing sponsor. Almost by accident, because of some gas leases he held, Gremmels became a multi-millionaire. At 60, he and his wife Rese decided to retire back in East Texas.
Then they saw Ben Wheeler.
BROOKS: “You looked up here and you had this poor, falling-down derelict town. And I thought, Well, maybe I could spend a little money and clean up the town. One thing led to another. Every time I cleaned something up, the neighbor next door offered to sell their property.”
Gremmels created a development company and non-profit foundation and bought up most of the unincorporated town. He started restoring Ben Wheeler to its 1935 heyday. He renovated a couple of old storefronts and began luring just a few, hand-picked artisans — with rents of one-dollar a month. So far, the artists include Dan Harrison, an esteemed custom knifemaker, and P. A. Geddie, publisher of County Line magazine.
[sound of tinkling doorbell]
MARTIN: “ ‘Course, when you meet somebody like this, you kind of got your radar up. You know, ‘OK, there has to be something in it for him and his wife.’ But the longer it went on, the more we were convinced that this guy was real.”
In person, Gremmels is hyper with energy and enthusiasm. [sound of car ignition] We take off in his Dodge Viper, one of dozens of sports cars and motorcycles he owns. We pass the new fire station that Gremmels gave the town. Zipping by an empty field, Gremmels shouts, it’s going to be a six-acre lake someday. We cruise past some of the 15 homes he’s bought up in the area — some of them will become bed-and-breakfasts, until Gremmels can figure a way to put in a small hotel. The entire town uses septic tanks; the hotel will require a sewer system.
Then Gremmels pulls up in front of an abandoned, cinderblock warehouse. It’s an old sweet potato shed, the roof gone, weeds growing up inside, hip deep. There used to be dozens like it here — from back when sweet potatoes were a major crop in the region. Gremmels hopes to save this one by turning it into — a motorcycle museum.
BROOKS: “It’ll be a 6200-square foot museum. There’ll be motorcycles hanging from the ceiling and leathers and we’ve got a 1952 soda fountain.”
Gremmels insists that when he started buying up Ben Wheeler, he really had no plan. He’s making up this tiny arts colony as he goes along. One reason he bought up so much property, he says, is that he feared someone else might move in and put in a store or restaurant that wouldn’t mesh with the small cluster of cafes and arts shops he’s hoping to cultivate. He doesn’t want people moving in and “selling painted toilet seats.”
What Gremmels is trying to do — using the arts to revive a downtown — is basically what Dallas and Fort Worth and any number of American cities are spending millions to figure out. But Gremmels has a closer, more modest model than Lincoln Center or Philly’s Avenue of the Arts. Eight miles east of Ben Wheeler is the small town of Edom, which held its first arts festival in 1971. It’s now a tourist stop, an arts-and-crafts community of potters, painters and cafes.
Just from reading all this, artists may already be trying to get Gremmels on the phone — especially considering those low-low rents. But they also might want to consider the fact that low overheard doesn’t mean high income (and that Gremmels has only a handful of storefronts up and running). Where will Ben Wheeler’s customer base come from? Why would any arts patron try to find this forgotten little corner five miles from I-20?
But Gremmels says he’s not worried about whether people will eventually come to Ben Wheeler. That’s because Ben Wheeler happens to sit halfway between the art festivals in Edom and the first-Monday antique fairs in Canton.
[guitar and crowd noise]
It’s Thursday night, and we’re at the weekly jam session that Gremmels throws for the town. He’s been doing it since last September and normally, it’s been held at the Pickin’ Porch, an old house that Gremmels had trucked to a little downtown park in Ben Wheeler for use as a stage. But because of the summer heat, they’ve moved the music-making indoors to Moore’s (left), the former general store that Gremmels is turning into a restaurant. Seventy people are here tonight, 12 musicians from around the area are onstage — a sax player, a fiddler, an accordionist and nine guitarists, including Stephen Giles. During breaks, townspeople regularly come up to Gremmels or Rese and ask them when the restaurant will open — what this evening needs is some good food and beer.
The pick-up band segues from Jerry Lee Lewis to the “Orange Blossom Special” to Rockin’ Sydney. The musicians — most of whom have never met before — happily let Gremmels sit in, and he honks on his harmonica and howls through “House of the Rising Sun.” The musicians and audience members tease him about his enthusiastic, stomping performance, and Gremmels laughingly admits that no one would let him sing if he didn’t own the place.
He looks to be having the time of his life.
BROOKS: “Last year at the 4th of July, we had our first festival, we had about 2500-3000 people here. Bands played all day. And there were so many people saying thank you, and I was home that night, laying in bed. Rese asked me, what was going on. And I said, I finally figured it out. This is the payoff. And I figured out for the first time in my life what I’m supposed to be doing. I’d had a measure of success in some things. But it never was very fulfilling, and I always thought, golly, is that all there is? Right now, it’s the doggonedest feeling.”
“I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”