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Transforming a Dying Texas Town – Into an Arts Colony

by Jerome Weeks 31 Aug 2009 7:10 AM

Brooks Gremmels grew up in East Texas, made a fortune and came back to retire. But when he saw the dwindling town of Ben Wheeler, he bought up what he could. He’s restoring Ben Wheeler to its 1935 heyday — as in that photo on the right — but he’s filling it with custom knifemakers, sculptors and painters. Jerome Weeks reports on our area’s newest arts district.


Downtown Ben Wheeler: Moore’s Store, the Flying Fish Gallery and Dan Harrison’s Custom Knife Shop (l to r)

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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.

Brooks and the BoysBrooks Gremmels (left) talking out in front of Moore’s

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]

Flying Fish w Randy Martin2Randy Martin (right) is a kinetic metal sculptor. Gremmels got him to open the Flying Fish Gallery in May.

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]

Crowd at Moore'sIt’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.

[music fades]

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.”

Moore's Store ext3Moore’s, looking in from the outside: Thursday, 10:15 pm

  • What a grand idea. I wish I lived close enough to participate in an art gallery. I really love Brooks’ idea and passion.

  • Jay & Liz Stepp

    We are so pleased to see this positive resurgence for Ben Wheeler; which is not far from Canton where we grew up. Thanks for the vision!

  • Christopher Soden

    If you are looking for a serious, dedicated, native-Texan poet and playwright for possible residency please be in touch.

  • That is cool. I want to move there

  • Way to go, Brooks! There so many pretty little towns in Texas that just need a shot in the arm from one or two caring individuals “of means” like yourself. I’m going to pay a visit to Ben Wheeler one of these Thursday evenings.

  • Jeff Gottesman

    The website for the Edom Festival of the Arts is:

    The link in the article is incorrect 🙂

  • I’ve changed the link.

  • Troy Frazier

    Mr. Gremmels is all (he)art! ;o) He loves what he’s doing and his enthusiasm shows. I’m very excited to hear of the restoration and rejuvenation of Ben Wheeler. My wife’s family owns recreational property nearby in Brownsboro. On our next trip out to East Texas, we will definitely be stopping in Ben Wheeler! GOD BLESS Texas with 1,000 more Brooks Gremmels!!!

  • What a wonderful thing Mr. Gremmels has done for Ben Wheeler. It’s been fun to watch this transformation take place. We often send guests from our zip line out that way who are looking for a little shopping. The WIRED team is looking forward to the Feral Hawg Fest too. There’s always something fun and adventurous to do in East Texas.

  • Steve Stamps & Em

    Let us tell you about Brooks Gremmels and wife Rese…
    Both have hearts of gold, the most genuine hearted souls we have ever known…it’s like God put Brooks on this Earth to totally shake things up and help people….if you know him, you would so agree….As far as Ben Wheeler, my what a lucky man in history….thank you Brooks…just for being you. You will be in history books for sure…we love you so much…luv, Em & Steve

  • Shirley

    I drive through Ben Wheeler & Edom many times a week and have been watching this transformation. It is good to finally know what is happening. I am always looking to add interesting stories and events in East Texas to our blog as well as another interesting place to promote to our visitors. Thanks Mr. Gremmels for reviving an East Texas Community.

  • Terry Smith

    I am a 61 year old artist who makes angels out of recyled plywood and terracotta clay. Next summer I plan to retire. I plan to move out of the city to a nice slow paced little country town. I am so glad that someone is working to keep that kind of town alive. I don’t have the money that Brooks has but I know I will be helping the community where I move get more involved with the arts and get back to sharing with your neighbor. The greatest gift in life is giving. Helping and Giving has rewards greater than anything money can buy.
    Thanks Brooks for all you do to help.

  • When I read an article over a year ago, about what Brooks wanted to do in Ben Wheeler, I told my husband, a musician, Awesome.. . can’t wait… It’s close by.

    We all drive by Canton just to see what was going on and watched it all. We live right outside of Edom in a rural area, 10 miles from all this.

    I did not know East Texas BackRoads Band would be part of all of it in any way. Played at 1st Feral Hawg Fest in 2008 and several music festivals already and will again at Hawg Fest for 2009. My husband, Stephen and brother in law have hosted the Pickin’ Porch open jam this year, and watched it grow from guests listening — from 3 to 50 or more — on Thursday nights. Have and will play for Moore’s Store. Also, Moore’s Store’s stage is an 8th wonder with Mural of Old town.

    You really have to come and visit all of this to appreciate it. All the staff is great. P.A. and Tom Geddie have been a part of it all at County Line Magazine , which is also in town. Mike Loggin and wife and son, Stone Wall, are a family we’ve all come to know, as well as Charley and Linda Wheeler. Yes, he is part of the blood line of Ben Wheeler.

    Brooks and Reese are very nice people, bringing old town back to life like this. Brooks is full of life and I like watching Reese watching him and laughing. I can’t not say or mention every one like I’d like to. Not enough room.

    Just glad that East Texas BackRoads Band has been a part of it: Stephen Giles, Eric Giles, Ben Lowery and John Smith.

    Thanks Brooks and all of the staff………… you make life more interesting.

  • Amanda Jenkins (always-Giles)

    I remember driving through Ben Wheeler and past my relatives homes in Edom as a little girl on the way to my grandparents house in Chandler. It was always such a sleepy,comforting little town and let me know we were almost there. It’s great to see that some of my family who have responded to this article are taking part in the artistic revival of this community. It’s about time I got back down to East Texas.

  • Brenda (Parham) Kellam

    My father bought a farm outside Ben Wheeler in 1950 and moved our family there. As a little girl, I remember many of the businesses that were there during those days and many of the wonderful people who lived there. My father grew sweet potatoes and my mom was a loving mother, wife, homemaker. My brother & I had a great childhood growing up in Ben Wheeler. I am so grateful to the Gremmels for their generosity, their energy to resurrect a dying community, and their love for mankind. What an inspiration they are to everyone who meets them.

  • AWESOME story about another small town success story (along with that of WINNSBORO, of course!) in beautiful, rural East Texas. We can’t wait to play MOORE’S STORE in historic downtown Ben Wheeler on Saturday night, October 10, 2009. Come see what’s happening in the newly declared “WILD HOG CAPITAL OF TEXAS!” 🙂 Hope to see you there. ~ Adler & Hearne

  • After playing DJ and M.C. for the Edom Car Cruise this past weekend for my second time, and having worked also at the larger car show in Tyler, I can say that the atmosphere in Ben Wheeler and Edom could only be described as “Goin’ back home!” for me. I became involved in this through covering another friend’s DJ company when he could not make one of his commitments. After three of them in East Texas I am hooked. The people treated me like an old high school classmate. The cars at the cruise were all of those I always wanted – but could never afford. I’d love to DJ an indoor our outdoor event in Ben Wheeler,too!
    Mike “The DJ”

  • James Di Pietro


  • cary mcmanus

    my grandfather owned the feed store that stood to the right of the knife shop. wish i owned it to renovate it. I believe my aunt shirley still owns some of the buildings across the street on the bank side.

  • peter

    Okay, I am going to move there. I hope there are a few single women over 55.

  • Connie Giles

    Just recently re read this, Brooks passed away less than week ago. In the Early part of all this was good and hard times and few misunderstandings, but does not ruin all good memories and Brooks was big part of Jams, Then House Band Others to come afterwards. You never knew when he would come running and jump on stage and join in, if beat and song worked him up. Some thought he was crazy man at the moment, till others say Brooks..Then laughter would start and clapping.