Folk Hero: Town mourns the man who built Ben Wheeler

Published on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 00:06 - Written by Faith Harper,

 Purple ribbons wave in the wind in downtown Ben Wheeler as a community mourns the loss of a man who not only revitalized the town, but became a friend to many of its residents.

Brooks Gremmels, 70, died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in April 2012.

In 2003, Gremmels retired to the then-sleepy town in Van Zandt County.

He began buying property and repairing dilapidated buildings, and transformed the town into a lively and artsy nook in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Gremmels was more than a savvy businessman to his friends. He was a kooky character with a love of art, music, cars and people.

“This thing bloomed,” 37-year-old Kerian Massey, of Murchison said. “It was like he watered the earth and created this beautiful thing.”

It’s a legacy the townspeople will not let be forgotten. About 20 people helped plant 2,000 flower bulbs near the Forge in downtown Ben Wheeler Tuesday afternoon in Gremmel’s honor. Participants called the event “daffodils and buttercups for Brooks” and anticipate continuing the tradition annually.

The flowers should bloom into beautiful colors in the spring and serve as one more reminder of the man who shaped the town.

“He’s in very board, every nail, and every piece of concrete …” said Marsha Taylor, owner of Secret Garden. “He will be there forever because he is so (much) a part of this whole thing.”

Small pieces of Gremmels’ memories are scattered throughout the town’s small businesses. Parts of his classic motorcycle and scooter collection at Scoot n’ Scoops ice cream shop, a lineup of his old driver’s licenses and childhood photos are epoxied into tables at the Forge, and a set of warm memories lies within the hearts of the townspeople.

“I miss hugging him …” 22-year-old Scarlett Miller said. “They were warm, and he always used to whisper in my ear, ‘I thank God that you’re here.’ I miss him a lot.”

Gremmels always had a hug waiting for his friends.

Ms. Taylor said as soon as Gremmels saw her, he would stand on whatever was near and throw his arms out wide for a hug. She said it was a running joke because of their height difference.

“You would have thought he was 17 — he had so much energy …” Ms. Taylor said. “He was rock ‘n’ roll, have fun, help somebody.”

Ms. Miller said the Forge became Gremmels’ favorite spot, where he would commonly have dinner with his wife Rese and their dogs Cosmo and Annie. He also had a daughter he adored, Amy Blake Hafele, and grandchildren who filled him with love and pride — Taylor, Austin, Cole, John Wyatt and Audrey.

Gremmels also was known to play the harmonica with performing artists at the venue, and he loved to sing and play his guitar.

“It came from the heart, and he loved to sing,” she said. “He loved to learn how to play the guitar. No matter how hard it was, he kept trying. He used to sit at the Pickin’ Porch, and he would sit and play for everybody all the time.”

Ms. Taylor said she would miss Gremmels’ subtle life lessons, which were always told in the form of a story.

“He’d sit down and he would casually have a conversation with you, and you had no idea that he already had an agenda,” she said. “He already had something he wanted you to know, and it wasn’t until later that it hit you.”

He also was an avid collector of art. Bill Williamson, owner of the Walking Horse art gallery, said Grammels’ purchased so much art, he wound up storing it in under beds in his home, but his extensive collection didn’t keep him from wanting to bring more home.

“Brooks is someone that anyone could look up to,” Williamson said. “Positive feelings (vibrated) from that man. He was always energetic and always wanting to know more and do more.”

To continue his dream and legacy, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation, P.O. Box 7, Ben Wheeler, Texas, 75754.