Special Report: The man who built Ben Wheeler
POSTED: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 3:37pm
UPDATED: Monday, November 17, 2014 - 11:01am
Ben Wheeler, TX (KETK) — EDITORS NOTE: The extended web video version is only available to desktop users.
Nearly 30 miles northwest of Tyler, lies the small town of Ben Wheeler.
Although fewer than 500 people call the town home, it's the spirit of the community that makes this place so special.
And there's one man, who's behind it all.
You can spot him from a mile away.
His name is Brooks Gremmels.
He's hold the title of Mayor, City Manager and everything in between.
Gremmels though, simply calls himself the "Chief Instigator."
And what he "instigated" turned this crumbling town, into one of East Texas' most valued jewels.
The bustling little town, was named after "Benjamin Wheeler," a letter carrier for the United States Post Office who settled there in the late 1800's.
After WWII though, things changed.
Jenni Wilson, president of the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation said the war, "pretty much did it in for awhile, a long while.'
And that's where The Gremmels step in.
After an adventurous career in everything from: stock trading, concert promotion, even racing motorcycles, Gremmels found his niche in the oil and gas industry in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
After striking "black gold," the Tyler native and his wife Rese decided to retire near home.
Gremmels expalined, "The only problem was, there wasn't a Ben Wheeler. Ben had come and gone."
They were determined to bring "Ben" back.
Once The Gremmels completed their dream home, they started looking around at opportunities to make things better for the community.
They started by tearing down a few houses in Ben Wheeler and buying property downtown.
Their hope was to revive this town's historic past.
People took notice.
It was as if the entire town had woken up.
Initially, residents in Ben Wheeler didn't know what to think.
Vernoica Terres is the Marketing Communications Director for Ben Wheeler Development Company, L.L.C.
Terres said, "They saw that he wasn't trying to change it. He was actually just trying to bring it back."
Gremmels saw a spark in the town and realized he was on the right path.
"It was a conscious decision from that 4th of July thing on to try to do everything we could to try and rebuild the community here in town," Gremmels said.
Buildings went up, others came down, restaurants opened for business, all while maintaining the historic integrity of Ben Wheeler.
As a businessman, Gremmels recognized that for this small community to thrive, it needed more vendors.
The hurdle though, was convincing merchants to move to a town that had been dead for years.
With that in mind, Gremmels and his wife Rese founded the "Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation."
Wilson said, "He realized he was going to have to get it going pretty quick."
So the foundation offered rent at a price, unheard of in this day and age; one dollar.
The foundation picked up the rest.
Gremmels shifted his focus to getting his neighbors more involved.
A community event was the solution.
Gremmels joked, "We've taken the lemons we have, and made it into a big ole pitcher of lemonade calling it 'Hog Fest.'"
Starting out small in the beginning, "Hog Fest" now draws in thousands of people every October.
They've got everything from the coronation of the hog queen, a hog parade, live music, a cook-off and that infamous "pig bus" everyone sees romping down the streets of East Texas.
Ben Wheeler had landed on the map once again.
Terres explains, "It literally went from no cars downtown, to a Saturday night with every parking spot filled."
Gremmels and his crew didn't stop there.
To continue his vision, focused on the community, they brought in a children's library.
"Every child that comes in, is given five books. They take those books with them. They read them and give them to five other kids," Gremmels said.
They also moved a century's-old wedding chapel into town.
Wide-eyed, Gremmels said, "I tell you, it's just a work of art. Every time I walk in there, I'm just almost speechless at just how special it is."
He added, "We've got a motorcycle museum that just happens to serve ice cream. It's the worst business idea in the world, but it was a clever name, "Scoops n Scoots" so we went with it!"
The town was on its way.
However, just as sharply as Gremmels' vision had taken off, news broke that would change his life forever.
"I have gotten sick. I was diagnosed 7 or 8 months ago with pancreatic cancer. It's caused people to ask questions. What's going to become of all of this?" Gremmels questioned.
"The foundation is determined to sustain his vision," reassured Wilson.
The tables had turned.
That same broken town, resurrected through Gremmels' passion, was now returning the favor.
"That's I guess when I saw the payoff. When the people started saying thank you. I never looked for a payoff," Gremmels said.
Maintaining that smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye, it's evident that his wife Rese, is where he seeks the most strength.
Donley St. Andre has know the couple for year.
"You can tell when they look at each other, that they really really love each other," St. Andre explained.
When asked about his wife, Rese, two simple words were all he needed.
"She's everything. She's everything."
As Gremmels continues to trek forward, so does the town, shaken, but optimistic.
Terres said, "He keeps on going, just like we are."
If you make your way to Ben Wheeler, Gremmels wants visitors to know one thing.
"Hopefully they leave with the feeling that they're welcome back anytime."
Though Ben Wheeler's "fearless leader" is lying low for now, his presence is felt in every nook of this small town.
"Even if you don't believe it at the moment, he makes you believe it at the end," Terres explained.
However, the journey is just beginning.
The adventures for this town are far from over.
And "The Man Who Built Ben Wheeler," a legend, to anyone who has seen his vision come to life.
Gremmels ended the interview by saying, "Illness or not, I am just passing through. And I've had my turn here to steer this thing for awhile and it's going to be other people's turns pretty soon to start steering this. And I can't wait to see what they do with it. And I tend to be watching it."