Special Report: The man who built Ben Wheeler
POSTED: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 12:19pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 2:26pm
Ben Wheeler, Tx (KETK) — EDITORS NOTE: The extended web video version is only available to desktop users.
You can spot him from a mile away.
His curly gray hair, two loyal companions, Cosmo and Annie by his side, his walk, so full of enthusiasm and energy, always donning that contagious smile, with a heart to match its size.
Meet Brooks Gremmels.
When asked to describe Gremmels' role in the Ben Wheeler, Donley St. Andre said, "He's our mayor, our city manager, our whatever. You want excitement and so forth and so on? He's the one you go to!"
Gremmels simply calls himself the "chief instigator."
And what he "instigated" turned the crumbling town of Ben Wheeler, 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 1800s.
However, after WWII, things changed.
"There was nothing here. Everything had died in time. Businesses had closed," St. Andre described.
Jenni Wilson, president of the Ben Wheeler Arts and Historic District Foundation said, "It pretty much did it in for awhile, a long while, until just about less than ten years ago."
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.
They ended up with a tract of land outside Ben Wheeler.
Gremmels said, "The only problem was, there wasn't a Ben Wheeler. Ben had come and gone."
And they were determined to bring "Ben" back.
Once The Gremmels completed their dream home, their focus shifted.
"I started looking around at opportunities. Opportunities to maybe make things a little bit better," Gremmels said.
They started by tearing down a few houses in Ben Wheeler and buying property downtown.
Their hope was to revive the town's historic past.
There was a shift in the community, and people took notice.
Wilson said, "I started seeing movement. Whether it was a store front boarded in, a store being brought in. Then I started seeing new "old buildings" brought in and realized something was up."
Wilson wasn't the only one who saw "movement."
It was as if the entire town had woken up.
Initially, residents in Ben Wheeler didn't know what to think.
They questioned his intentions.
Veronica Terres, the marketing communications director for Ben Wheeler Development Company, L.L.C. said, "Once you see Brooks running around town and what resources he's putting in, they saw that he wasn't trying to change it. He was actually just trying to bring it back to what it was before."
Once people around town grew comfortable with Gremmels' presence and vision, he saw a spark in the town and realized he was on the right path.
"It was a conscious decision from that point on to try to do everything we could to try and rebuild the community here in town, and try to leave a mark," Gremmels said.
Buildings went up, others came down, restaurants opened for business, all while maintaining the historic integrity of Ben Wheeler.
They covered most of the buildings with brick.
Gremmels said, "The idea of covering them with brick was intentional. It was the idea to show that we were here and we were going to stay here."
It was Gremmels' passion that motivated others to get involved.
Terres said, "Brooks has this charisma about him that he makes you feel anything is possible."
As a businessman though, Gremmels recognized that for this small community to thrive, it needed more vendors.
The hurdle, however, was convincing merchants to move to a town that had been dead for years.
With that in mind, Gremmels and his wife founded the "Ben Wheeler Arts and Historic District Foundation."
Wilson said, "The story he wanted to say to people, it's an artisan community. In order to get the word out that Ben Wheeler was back and Ben Wheeler matters, he realized he was going to have to get it going pretty quick, and what more can you offer but basically free rent?"
The foundation only charges a dollar per month in rent.
In return, the merchants agree to have their doors open a certain number of hours per week.
Gremmels said, "The merchants in town own their own businesses. They run their own businesses out of the foundation's buildings, but they don't pay any rent here in town."
Gremmels added that it creates a sense of teamwork, "Everyone gets along, that way."
As East Texas artists and merchants began to fill the storefronts, Gremmels shifted his focus to encouraging his neighbors to become more involved.
A community event was the solution.
Out of that, the "Feral Hog Festival" was born in all its wallowing majesty.
Gremmels laughed at the idea, "We've taken the lemons we have, and made it into a big ole pitcher of lemonade calling it 'Hog Fest.'"
They took it to the extreme, even filing paperwork down in Austin to officially deem themselves the "Feral Hog Capitol of Texas."
Starting out small in the beginning, "Hog Fest" draws in thousands of people every October.
It's coincidentally the weekend after a prestigious festival in the neighboring city of Tyler.
"We do it the weekend following the Rose Festival, and I'm sure the people have not discerned yet, if there's a parody involved in this. It's strictly a coincidence that we follow the Rose Festival," Gremmels said, with a grin on his face.
They have everything from the coronation of the hog queen, a hog-themed parade, live music, a cook off, and that infamous "pig bus" everyone sees romping down the streets of East Texas.
St. Andre gives all the "pig bus" credit to Gremmels.
"He's the one who came up with the idea. We wound up with an old school bus. We tried a few different shades of colors on it and ended up with the pink on it and had a nose made and put ears on it. So we just travel around and have a good time on it," St. Andre said.
By that point, it was noticeable, Ben Wheeler had landed on the map once again.
"It went from literally no cars downtown, to a Saturday night with every parking spot filled," Terres described.
Gremmels and his crew didn't stop there.
To continue his vision, focused on the community, they brought in a children's library.
"We have a library that was moved here from a small town called Elmwood. We broke the building into four pieces and we moved it here and put it back together," Gremmels said.
In the library, you'll find shelves, chock-full of children's books.
Through a unique partnership with Half Price Books, Gremmels explained, "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."
Sometimes, that ends up being a child's very first book of their own.
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."
Ben Wheeler also has a motorcycle museum that doubles as an ice cream parlor.
"It's the worst business idea in the world," Gremmels joked, "But it was a clever name 'Scoops and Scoots' so we went with it!"
Terres said, "Whether you're a gun collector or whether you own hats. Whether you love "Made in America" products, we have it."
The town was on it's 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 sever or eight months ago with pancreatic cancer," Gremmels explained.
It was a diagnosis that jolted the town into another sudden shift.
Gremmels continued, "It's caused people to ask questions, not unlike those questions that I have. What's going to become of all of this? You get the news like that and it changes things. And you decide where your priorities are. Then you start thinking about who will come in and do this stuff. Who will continue? How can you make sure this vision really does continue?"
Through the foundation, Gremmels and his staff established a Board of Trustees, that will act as a leadership panel, designed to move Ben Wheeler forward.
Jenni Wilson is the president of the foundation, "The foundation is determined to sustain his vision," she said.
"He wants the community to stand up on its own two feet, and that's what he's wanted since the beginning," Terres added.
After word got out of Gremmels' diagnosis, the tables quickly turned.
That same broken town, resurrected through Gremmels' passion, was now returning the favor.
It was a silver lining.
"That's, I guess when I saw the payoff. When the people started saying thank you. I never looked for a payoff. The payoff was in 'Thank you for what you've done around here. We appreciated ya,'" Gremmels said.
He continues to maintain that smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye.
It's evident that his wife, Rese, is where Gremmels seeks most of his strength.
St. Andre, who's known the couple for years said, "You can tell when they look at each other, that they really really love each other."
When asked about Rese, tears began to swell in his eyes.
Gremmels simply answered, "She's everything. She's everything. She's everything."
As Gremmels continues to trek forward, so does the town, shaken, but optimistic.
Terres pointed out the symbolism, "He keeps moving forward, just like we are."
Moving forward is exactly what Gremmels and his staff plan to do.
The next step for Ben Wheeler, believe it or not, is a sewer system.
Gremmels chuckled, "You would never think that flushing a toilet in 2013 would be a big deal now, would you? I wouldn't," he paused, "But it is."
It's a big deal because the goal for Ben Wheeler is to provide guests a place to rest their head at night.
However, without a sewer, you're well ... outta luck.
Fortunately, the USDA recently approved a $4-million system for the town.
They plan to break ground at the start of next year.
Gremmels spoke about the future, once the sewer is complete.
"I have a feeling that what you'll see is more of what you see now. Destination tourism. Hopefully they leave with the feeling that they're welcome back anytime."
By the looks of it, that's already happening.
Though Ben Wheeler's fearless leader is lying low for now, his presence is felt in every nook of this small town.
"He's a man that's full of life and full of hope. And ultimately if you don't believe it at the moment, he makes you believe it at the end," Terres said.
But this 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 witnessed his vision come to life.
Gremmels said, "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."