Brooks’ basic project through Ben Wheeler Development Company (BWDC) will take some time before his full vision comes to fruition. But when complete, Gremmels will have provided Ben Wheeler with a downtown and surrounding areas with sustainability and profitability for future generations to enjoy easy-living-conveniences life in Ben Wheeler can afford each of its residents – an endeavor that strives to afford the community with restaurants, a winery, downtown shops and artisans’ wares, a fully restored downtown park complete with gazebos and stages for entertainment, a farmers market, a classic car museum and motorcycle hall of fame, and much, much more.
“We’re working with a clean sheet of paper,” Brooks explained. “When I grew up in Tyler and went back and forth to Dallas, Ben Wheeler was a nice little town,” he said. “When I moved back 35 years later, I guess they’d lost their pride. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to do something positive to help restore it.”
Since last February, Gremmels and his team have been working on various projects which have included refurbishing old houses, buildings and store houses, cleaning up park land and putting on family-friendly events to help in that restoration of pride and community.
“I don’t know if that’s something we can really measure, but it’s something you feel if you have it,” he said.
“There’s no place right now for people to really gather, although the new fire station is very generous with its facility for town meetings. We’d like something dedicated to that, especially for the older citizens. If we take care of the youth and older citizens, those of us in between will find our own way.”
Brooks, is a member of the Van Zandt County Historical Commission. As such, he is in constant communication with local residents for input into BWDC’s plans.
“I’ve solicited all of the input I could get, especially from people who have lived here for generations,” he said. “Many have furnished photos, and it’s amazing how much history is in people’s heads. We’re putting together a pretty good picture of the way Ben Wheeler looked from the mid 1930s, and our long-term goal is to reconstruct the town similar to what it was in 1935. We want to try to recapture the feeling, the old-fashioned atmosphere where people walk and sit and visit and play dominos.A historical commission veteran and Ben Wheeler native, Sybil Creasey, said Brooks wanted to know more about Ben Wheeler as soon as he joined the commission.
“I gave him a few things, and a month later he knew everything I knew and more. He’s doing his homework,” Sybil said. “He’s a very intelligent man interested in history. He’s got a lot of plans, and if anybody can make them work, he can. I am very excited about what he’s doing, and will help him any way I can. A lot of people feel the same.”
Ben Wheeler, named for the first man to carry mail into Van Zandt County, thrived during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Families would arrive in horse-drawn wagons, ride horses, or walk to visit, get mail, buy supplies, and sell or trade goods.
At one time, the farming and ranching community included several general stores, churches, barbers, blacksmiths, tailors, saddle and shoe shop, several gins and mills, a bank, the Berry Resort Hotel, boarding houses, a movie theater, lumber yard, a garage with gas pumps eventually, cafes, a school, and even a college at one time called the Alamo Institute. Ben Wheeler shrank after World War II as many people left for large cities to find work.
To help recapture and maintain the excitement from the city’s heyday, BWDC recently hired a planning firm, Schrickel, Rollins and Associates from Arlington, to look at everything from civil engineering to landscaping to architecture and town planning.
In conjunction with plans to revitalize and renovate the downtown, part of the plans include looking to cities like Winnsboro and Gruene, Texas – cities where music and musicians offer instant entertainment and a fun, welcoming setting for nearby communities and area residents to congregate, celebrate and enjoy each others company.
For the BWDC employees, the project is both a living and a passion. For Brooks and his wife, Rese, a Longview native, it’s about giving back to the community. Although they could make some money from the venture, that’s not the purpose.
In fact, the couple created a not-for-profit group, Ben Wheeler Historical & Art Foundation, to rebuild and build new spaces in the center of town – an effort that they hope to be able to maintain through joint ventures with other foundations and partnerships.
“We want to raise the bar high enough so that we have something unique that will draw people into town,” Brooks said.
Randall Clayton, owner and president of family-owned First State Bank of Ben Wheeler, said the project is good for the community.
“Revitalizing our old downtown area is going to make everybody’s property values better,” Randall said. “I fully support him at this point in time with what he’s trying to do to revitalize the economy and the area around Ben Wheeler. He’s provided some leadership for some things that needed to be done for many years, and I hope with what he’s doing it will change the image of the town and make it more attractive for more people to move here, and do business here.”
Brooks has the means to renovate Ben Wheeler because of his business successes.
For more than 20 years, he managed oil and gas companies that operated several hundred wells. He also was president and CEO of WhamTech, which developed virtual data and information integration, sharing, and interoperability technology products. He started racing with the Central Motorcycle Roadracing Association in 1999 (well past his 50th birthday) and won several road-racing sprint championships. He served on CMRA’s board of directors and was named to its hall of fame. In connection with his racing career, he founded Shogun Enterprises and Shogun Motorsports.
Brooks retired from Oil and Gas Producers/OGP Operating about five years ago, giving the company to its employees, moving back into this area, and buying ARC Ridge Ranch which is mostly used for youth gatherings and other special and charitable events.
“My retirement is a total failure,” he said. “I intended to see if I could clean up the town a little, and one thing led to another.”
Today, as more people move back into the country, Ben Wheeler may thrive again. It will if Brooks Gremmels, Rese, and their small band of men and women work with other local residents to make it happen.
“We’re going to make this town better than when we found it, and make people proud to say they live in Ben Wheeler.”