BEN WHEELER, TX (ketr) - More than 200 people packed into Moore's Store in Ben Wheeler Sunday to pay tribute to entrepreneur and philanthropist Brooks Gremmels. State Representative Dan Flynn and Van Zandt County Commissioner Ron Carroll read proclamations by the state legislature and county judge declaring September 18, 2011, Brooks Gremmels Day in Van Zandt County.
Gremmels' love of history and preservation led to his interest in the resurrection and redevelopment of the small dying town of Ben Wheeler in southern Van Zandt County. He has spent millions of his own money buying and redeveloping property, which he placed in a charitable trust called the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation.
Gremmels is a Tyler native who ran a successful natural gas development and production company, raced motorcycles, and created and partnered in several other companies before retiring near Ben Wheeler in 2003. He and his wife Rese built a home about three miles out of town and also purchased Arc Ridge Ranch about six miles from downtown Ben Wheeler.
Driving through the ghost town often, Gremmels had memories of how Ben Wheeler had once been a thriving town and he had the desire to bring it back and build on the sense of community. In 2007, he began buying property in and around unincorporated Ben Wheeler along Highway 64 and the old downtown along FM 279. He cleaned up many trash-ridden and tall-grass areas creating parks for special events and began restoring old downtown buildings.
Through his company Ben Wheeler Development Corporation over the last four years he has created space for numerous businesses, shops, and places for artist demonstrations. Some of those benefitting from his work include N&B Feed & Fertilizer, County Line Magazine, Flying Fish Gallery, Harrison & Sons Knifesmith, The Rave Art Gallery, The Blue Moose, Antiques & Texas Heritage, Whimzee, Wagon Wheel Forge & Gallery, Scoots n Scoops, Secret Garden Embroidery, as well as two restaurants and music venues, Moore's Store and The Forge.
Through Ben Wheeler Arts&Historic District Foundation he offers artists free ($1 per month) rent to help them afford space to create and to draw more people to town. He held an outdoor event July 4, 2008, where hundreds of people gathered in downtown Ben Wheeler for the first time in more than 40 years.
That same year Gremmels started the Fall Feral Hog Festival, which drew about 4,000 visitors to this little community to the delight of business owners and residents alike. The idea was to poke fun at the annoying feral hogs that cause havoc and serious damages sometimes in the area. Soon, Ben Wheeler was named the official Wild Hog Capital of Texas.
Gremmels, a member of the Van Zandt County Historical Commission, got a lot of input from people who have lived in Ben Wheeler as he went about resurrecting the town. Many furnished photos and stories that have been recorded and archived. Events take place on a regular basis to honor those who came before and the rich history of the town.
He saved a number of old buildings from being torn down in Ben Wheeler and others from neighboring towns that he moved, bringing them to Ben Wheeler. The Old Elwood Schoolhouse, a syrup mill, and Harmony Chapel are recent additions that add charm and meeting places for the town.
He brought music to town when he built The Pickin' Porch in a downtown park. People began to come to jam on Thursday nights and soon the park was filled with families to visit, listen to music, and dance. Now there is also live music every weekend in Moore's Store and The Forge.
He brought work to many construction workers and still hires maintenance contractors on a regular basis to care for the properties.
Improving the community has many choosing to live in Ben Wheeler now that might have chosen elsewhere before. This has increased the property values and revitalized the economy in and around Ben Wheeler. Ben Wheeler is thriving again thanks to Brooks Gremmels.
During the Sunday celebration Gremmels was presented with flags that were flown over the United States Capitol building and the Texas State Capitol in his honor. Local Door Control Services businessman and long-time Ben Wheeler resident Don Gilchrist spoke about how the major improvements in town have helped his business entertain guests from all over the world. Van Zandt County Historical Commission's Lawrence Greer spoke about Gremmels commitment to preservation and the help he provides the commission on a regular basis. The downtown business community presented Gremmels with an appreciation plaque and emcee John Wilson entertained with a specially-written song. A video presentation depicted photos of the dull gray town of yesterday and the bright new look it has today along with interviews from the local community. The program was followed by a reception with food and drinks and live music by blacktopGYPSY, Wesley Pruitt, Heather Little, Ben Lowery, J.P. Fisher, and Tommy Addudell, and Brooks Gremmels himself.
To learn more about Ben Wheeler, visit www.benwheelertx.com.
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