Also see: Weekender: Playful objects take stage at the Dr Pepper Museum
By Randy Mallory
Nearly 20 years had passed
since I last visited Ben Wheeler, the tiny East Texas town named for a
19th-Century mail carrier. Back then, I spent a good two hours perusing denim
overalls and ribbon-cane syrup at Moore’s Store, one of the region’s
remaining general stores. I hoped the best for the 1933 mercantile, but it
closed shortly after my visit, and downtown subsequently all but died.
Recently, I heard that
Moore’s Store had been reincarnated (of all things) as a lively music venue
and restaurant. In fact, I was told, all of Ben Wheeler is on a roll. There’s
even talk that it’s on its way to becoming an arts destination. I thought: I
have to check this out!
From our home in Tyler, my
wife, Sallie, and I head west on Texas 64, then sidetrack onto the old
Highway 64, now FM 279. The serpentine backroad winds through the artists’
community of Edom, past Texas Longhorn ranches, and into a Ben Wheeler I
hardly recognize. Gone is the boarded-up look of the past. Instead,
refurbished wood-and-brick buildings from the 1930s house shops and eateries
in the two-block-long downtown. We park beside a red and yellow mural
featuring a gargantuan, freckle-faced boy holding a Moon Pie and an RC Cola.
The mural’s greeting,
“Welcome to Historic Ben Wheeler,” sprawls across the brick wall of Scoots ’n
Scoops, a combo motorcycle museum and ice cream parlor. The motorcycles
belong to a 65-year-old former road racer, entrepreneur, and all-around
Renaissance man named Brooks Gremmels. In unincorporated Ben Wheeler, he’s
the de facto mayor.
Flush with profits from his
oil and gas business, Brooks and his wife, Rese, moved from Dallas “back
home” to East Texas and began buying up local property three years ago. Some
$3 million later, they had acquired 40 acres in the heart of Ben Wheeler. To
secure the town’s revival, they created a foundation that renovates historic
structures and then rents them to artisans for $1 per month. Already, nine
structures have been spiffed up as artists’ studios or galleries. Some were
moved in from nearby communities or rural areas; others sit on their original
“At first we just wanted to
turn Moore’s Store into a great place for food and music,” Gremmels tells us
while holding court on a bench in front of Moore’s. “The good feelings we got
from local folks made me realize that bringing Ben Wheeler back had become my
Sallie and I spend the rest
of this bright and sunny Saturday sauntering back and forth across FM
279—careful to watch for the occasional tractor or pickup truck—to witness
firsthand a small-town revival.
We waltz into knifesmith Dan
Harrison’s shop as a regular customer recounts a recent Colorado hunting
trip. “Yep, and that guide couldn’t believe your hunting knife, Dan,” we
hear. “He said it was the sharpest blade he’d ever used!”
“And probably the most
beautiful,” I think to myself, having followed Harrison’s career for years.
The nationally respected craftsman takes hardened D-2 tool steel and
freehand-grinds custom blades for curvaceous kitchen, hunting, and
collector’s knives. He then fits the blades into exotic wood or horn handles.
Pulling out an ornate, nine-inch blade with a handle fashioned from a woolly
mammoth tooth, he tells us, “In 60 years of work, this is my most unusual
knife. My wife says that if this goes, she goes, too!”
Artistic metalcraft is
something of a local specialty.
At Flying Fish Gallery, Randy
and Sherri Martin transform castoff metal parts into fantastical creatures.
Gears, springs, and rods become a graceful water bird. Rebar, plate steel,
and cross-sections of a metal sphere become a kinetic fish. Bats hammered
from copper sheets spin frenetically in the breeze.
At Rave Art Gallery, Dallas
architects Craig and Jan Blackmon put their design talents to sculptural use.
I especially like their “pipe balls,” two-foot-diameter globes comprised of
tack-welded “noodles” cut from plumbing pipes. A blue light glows from the
Blackmons’ heavy pieces, which contrast with the delicate copper and silver
necklaces of jeweler Dyan Johnson, who shares the gallery space.
A short stroll away, we find
Lonnie Robinson pumping bellows to stoke the fire at Wagon Wheel Forge. The
affable blacksmith tells stories as he shapes a calla lily for a wall sconce.
“He can make anything his mind can conjure up,” his wife, Linda, remarks. The
Robinsons’ son and apprentice, Jodie, is busy working on another piece.
The late blacksmith Howard
Walker spent 50 years fixing plows and buggies at Ben Wheeler’s other forge,
now transformed into the Forge Bistro. Walker’s forge and hammer mill stand
beside the eatery’s rustic bar, which, along with the tables and chairs, was
made from cedar trees cut on the Gremmels’ ranch. There’s no more gumbo—a
specialty here—so I pick a tasty panini with grapevine-smoked tenderloin,
caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese.
After lunch, we browse the
vintage furniture and handmade gifts at Antiques and Texas Heritage. Next door,
the eclectic boutique WhimZee cracks us up with its adult-sized rubber cowboy
boots and little girls’ angel-winged tutus.
Up the street at Sojourn
Gallery, we like the representational portraits and landscapes of native
Texas painter Mary Hortman. Like some other Ben Wheeler artists, Hortman also
hosts classes at her studio and elsewhere in town.
We end the night on a boisterous note at Moore’s Store
listening to the Magills, a rockabilly band from Tyler. Behind the band, a
mural painted by Tyler artist Brent Hale (who also created the RC Cola mural)
depicts a quieter scene: Ben
Wheeler of the 1930s. The spacious joint is jammed, so we sit on the patio
and split a righteously rich burger and fresh-cut onion rings, while sipping
Shiner Bock and chardonnay. We recap some of the interesting things we heard
about today—the country school and church the Gremmels are restoring
downtown, the Feral Hog Festival held each October in this, the official Wild
Hog Capital of Texas, and other big plans for this little town.
Based on one day’s
sampling—and one couple’s vision—Sallie and I agree that Ben Wheeler is definitely
on a roll.