Revitalized: Historic Ben Wheeler shows artsy side during festival

Published on Saturday, 21 June 2014 22:58 - Written by Victor Texcucano vtexcucano@tylerpaper.com

BEN WHEELER — The artsy town of Ben Wheeler came to life once again on Saturday during the second annual Far Out Art Fest & Junebug Music Festival.

Artist booths, music, food vendors and an overall sense of community filled the historic downtown.

The festival, which charges nothing to artists who participate for the first time, helps maintain the legacy left by Brooks Gremmels, said Randy Martin, event organizer and owner of the Flying Fish Gallery in Ben Wheeler.

Gremmels, who passed away in January after a lengthy battle with cancer, is credited by many in the town for rebuilding Ben Wheeler.

After retiring to the town with his wife Rese in 2003, Gremmel purchased dilapidated homes and rundown businesses that were common to the town, and one by one, renovated them, helping Ben Wheeler become the small-but-bustling town it is now.

After the renovation of the town, the Arts & Historic District Foundation he started helped bring artists, entertainers and festivals to the sleepy area by charging merchants very little for the use of buildings.

“It’s the (Artists and Merchants Association) way of paying forward the generosity of the (Arts & Historic District Foundation), that’s why in the first year, (the artists) get a free space,” Martin said. “The reason why we do it is because the foundation has given the shop owners, most of whom are artists, an opportunity to have a store that we couldn’t afford (otherwise).”

Last year’s festival brought more than 1,200 people to the unincorporated town of about 800, and Martin said they expected the number to double this year.

He also said this year’s festival had 20 artists and five wineries.

Gremmel attended last year’s festival and liked what he saw, Martin said.

“(Gremmel) said that it was his goal of what he wanted to see happen, with people coming into the community and enjoying the park and having food and wine and enjoying art, and having a good time,” he said.

Jenni Wilson, president of the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation, said the town plans to host more festivals to serve as fundraisers for the foundation to maintain itself after the death of Gremmel, who heavily funded the foundation.

“Since we lost (Gremmel), we don’t have those funds available to us anymore,” she said. “So now we are kicking off a fundraising type of campaign for the foundation, and we’ll be doing more art shows and things like that to bring people into the town and hopefully make a little money for the foundation.”

She said the biggest fundraiser would be the annual Hog Fest in October, which is the town’s biggest festival.

Ms. Wilson said Gremmel — and what be brought to the town — will be missed.

“It was horrific to lose Brooks … and I’m not talking financially. He was just a big personality, he had the vision to bring this all together and was very particular about the people he picked to run and work with, and it’s a great crew of people,” she said. “To lose him — we’re still getting over it. It was a big loss and a big shock.”