Arts
5:25 pm
Fri October 18, 2013

How A Dallas Man Bought A Crumbling Texas Town And Made It Something Special

(Update, Jan. 27: Brooks Gremmels died over the weekend.)

A few years ago, Brooks Gremmels escaped Dallas and retired to a tiny East Texas town called Ben Wheeler.

The place was falling down. Buildings were vacant. Roofs were gone. Doors were missing. Weeds grew in the sidewalks.

People didn’t have much hope for the Van Zandt County town. But Gremmels did.

“Maybe I could spend a little money and clean up the town," he thought.

So, parcel by parcel, the multimillionaire cleaned up Ben Wheeler.

Today, thanks to Gremmels and his wife, Rese, the town of Ben Wheeler is a thriving arts mecca.

They’ve created art galleries and shops, as well as two restaurants that feature live music, and a library that gives away free books to kids. They convinced 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 Ben Wheeler, and obtained a federal grant to install a sewer system.

They’ve also had lots of fun along the way, namely by embracing hogs: They had the town designated the Feral Hog Capital of Texas.

That gave them a good excuse to throw the annual Fall Feral Hog Festival. This year’s event starts Friday night, with the Fall Feral Follies. One lucky gal will be crowned the Hog Queen. And on Saturday morning, there’s a hog parade -- people will drive around in a pink school bus outfitted with a giant pig’s nose and ears. About 5,000 plastic pigs’ noses will be thrown out to the crowds. Paradegoers grab the snouts and wear them.

“You have bluebird festivals and bluebonnet festivals, but there wasn’t a wild hog festival,” Brooks Gremmels said. “I think virtually every county in the state has problems with these feral hogs. We just decided to make some lemonade out of the lemons we were given.”

“Poor Ben Wheeler”

Brooks Gremmels says that more has changed in Ben Wheeler in the past five years than in the previous 50.

“You can find a little bit of everything an hour-and-15 minute drive from Dallas,” he said. “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.”

But why go to the effort of creating a town?

“I needed a place where I could go for a beer,” Gremmels joked.

Actually, he wanted to “see if we could recapture the sense of community that must have existed before.”

Ben Wheeler isn’t much more than a bend in the road, 12 miles east of Canton. It’s named after its first mailman from the 1870s. Benjamin Wheeler delivered the mail on muleback. But following World War II, school systems were consolidated and highways were built.

“Poor Ben Wheeler had suffered the fate that so many towns had,” Gremmels said. “Some towns came out winners, some didn’t. Ben Wheeler did not.”

Doing what he was meant to do

Born in nearby Tyler, Gremmels moved to Ben Wheeler after living in Dallas, where he worked as a beer distributor and concert promoter and founded his own data service company. In his 50s, he took up racing motorcycles; he even won some championships and established his own autoparts company. Almost by accident, because of some gas leases he held, Gremmels became a multimillionaire. At 60, he and Rese moved to Ben Wheeler.

Gremmels started overseeing the rehabbing of buildings. He obtained liquor permits for restaurants. Clubs opened, and they brought in bands. But Gremmels wanted more, so he added art galleries.

“That’s everything in our vision, the arts and the music,” he said. “Music and art go so close hand in hand.”

While this weekend’s hog festival hogs the spotlight, Ben Wheeler hosts other events throughout the year. A few years ago, after the town’s first Fourth of July festival, scores of people approached Brooks Gremmels to thank him for his efforts. As he went to sleep that night, he came to a realization: Building a town from scratch was what he was meant to do with his life.

“This has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Gremmels said. “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?”

PIG OUT ON BEN WHEELER

Listen to the KERA Friday Conversation with Brooks Gremmels and KERA’s Anne Bothwell. It aired in October 2013.

Listen to KERA’s earlier profile of Gremmels, produced in 2009.

Visit Ben Wheeler on the web.

GO HOG WILD!

Visit the Fall Feral Hog Festival:

Get on the pig bus:

Visit the 2011 hog parade: