Category Archives: Mineral Wells

General William H. Simpson & The Baker Hotel

William H. SimpsonBefore General William Hood Simpson led the Ninth Army across the Rhine and into Germany in March of 1945, he served for a brief period as Commanding Officer at Camp Wolters from April to October 1941 in Mineral Wells.  According to a recorded interview in 1976 (in the Menger Hotel) with Simpson, he stated that he lived with his wife in the Baker Hotel during his seven-month stay in Mineral Wells.

General Simpson had been a man on the move his entire life.  As a boy, he grew up in and around Weatherford, Texas – only seventeen miles from Mineral Wells.  So during his seven months in Mineral Wells, it must have been a little bit like going home, although he admitted in an interview that the move to Camp Wolters was sudden and it caused him to doubt himself: “I’d really thought my career was ruined to be relieved as assistant commander of a combat division to command a replacement center.” Indeed, it was an interesting move to send a seasoned war General to oversee the basic training of new draftees, only a few months after being promoted to Brigadier General. However, from all accounts of every man and officer at Camp Wolters during his tenure there, Simpson was just the same man that he had been his entire life: engaged, involved, and inspiring. He continued to excel in everything he was tasked with, and as a result he was promoted to Major General in October of 1941.

Simpson LifeSimpson had been inspired at the age of ten by his grandfather Judge Hood (then a prominent judge and lawyer in Texas) to look into going to West Point, because his grandfather noticed how much he enjoyed the war games he played as a boy. So Simpson had his eye on West Point, and at the age of sixteen, he read in the paper that there was a vacant position and that they wanted to appoint someone from Parker County, Texas – which is where he was from. He and only one other boy from the area applied – and he got the appointment. After graduating from West Point in 1909, he served in the Philippines and Mexico (chasing Pancho Villa with Patton) before being promoted to Captain and joining the 33rd Division in World War I. He then got married and served in many interwar period appointments before becoming a Major General and leading the Ninth Army during WWII.

General Simpson was self-confident, tall, lean, bald, and a sharp dresser.  However, when compared to more theatrical war figures like Patton and Montgomery, he was perhaps considered a more understated, less visible leader. Regardless, Simpson’s quiet confidence and steady competence continued to make a strong impression on his commanding officers as he rose in rank.

Simpson During WWIIEisenhower himself stated that he could find no mistake in Simpson’s leadership. “He was,” Eisenhower wrote, “the type of leader American soldiers deserve.”

According to his staff that knew him well, General Simpson was a true leader, the kind of man with a real presence. He was charismatic, warm, sincere and inspiring to his officers and his men, inspiring clarity and focus even during high stress war situations. He was described as a good listener with an understanding smile, quick with praise and encouragement. His temper didn’t flare easily, but everybody knew it when he wasn’t happy, and they worked hard to correct it. Armistead D. Mead, Simpson’s wartime Brigadier General, said that he had “an iron fist in a velvet glove.”

Simpson often walked among his men casually, listening and seeking to understand when they talked about their problems. And when he said he’d look into a situation, he always did, and he always followed up.

“General Simpson’s genius lay in his charismatic manner, his command presence, his ability to listen, his unfailing use of his staff to check things out before making decisions, and his way of making all hands feel that they were important to him and to the army.” – General Armistead D. Mead

Simpson retired in 1946 and was an active member of the San Antonio community where he lived until he passed away in 1980 at age 92.

It has been truly fascinating to learn about this great man whose story is forever intertwined into the history of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.

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Crazy Water & The King of Western Swing

Bob Wills, "The King of Western Swing"

Bob Wills

In 1931, long before “Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys” fiddled their way through the South, a group of struggling Texas musicians in Fort Worth came up with a bright idea.  The Depression was hitting them all hard, and they needed to come up with a plan.

Radio advertising was a brand new frontier, and musicians Bob Wills, Herman Arnspiger and Milton Brown saw the opportunity. Together, they approached the President of Burrus Mills Flour Company (who happened to be future governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel) and pitched him the idea of putting together a band to advertise flour on the radio.  They were probably inspired in part by Hal Collins’ Crazy Crystals radio show already underway in nearby Mineral Wells.

The Original Light Crust Doughboys (1931)

The Original Light Crust Doughboys (1931)

O’Daniel was initially resistant to the idea, and  he was not a fan of “that hillbilly music.”  But possibly because of Crazy Crystals’ success, he gave the boys a chance, and “The Light Crust Doughboys” got their start.  At first, O’Daniel proved to be a tough employer, and for the first few weeks he made the boys work full-time in the mill in addition to playing on the radio.  Later, when it became apparent that the ads were working well, he set them up to work on music in an on-site studio for 8 hours a day.

The Original Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills, Pappy O'Daniel

The Original Light Crust Doughboys (Bob Wills on Left)

The Doughboys played both original and traditional folk songs in the radio ads, and they also performed throughout the region at conventions and appearances.  Some band members even occasionally moonlighted on the Crazy Crystals radio show in Mineral Wells for extra money.   Eventually, O’Daniel finally lightened up and accepted the group as a true marketing success: the boys appealed to O’Daniel’s political aspirations and asked him to be their official emcee on the radio.  It’s possible that through the Doughboys, O’Daniel discovered his new passion: public speaking. He soon became known to the public as  “Pass the biscuits, Pappy!” O’Daniel, later parodied by the Cohen brothers in film.

Pappy O'Daniel and The Hillbilly Boys

Pappy O’Daniel and The Hillbilly Boys

According to some, however, O’Daniel and Wills did not get along, and their clashes were possibly exacerbated by Wills’ drinking habit. O’Daniel reportedly fired Wills after he missed one too many performances. But the Doughboys’ popularity continued to soar, and they were featured in at least one Gene Autry film in the mid-thirties. (Click the link above to see them perform “Tiger Rag” in the Autry film Oh, Susanna!)

O’Daniel was later fired from his position at Burrus Millls, and his early hatred of “that hillbilly music” must have mysteriously disappeared, because he founded his own flour company called “Hillbilly Flour” and a new band called the “Hillbilly Boys.” (Click on the link to listen!)

Meanwhile, Bob Wills was busy forming the beginnings of his legendary band “The Texas Playboys.”  In 1934, a year after leaving the Doughboys, the band signed a contract with Hal Collins and the Crazy Crystals company to play for thirty minutes every day from 12:30-1pm on Tulsa radio station KVOO. The band wasn’t exactly paid for the shows, but Wills knew that everybody in the area listened to the radio at lunch-time, and it was a great way to get their name out in order to book more shows. The tactic worked.

Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys

Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys

Pappy O’Daniel appeared in Wills’ life again, and asked him if he’d like to merge the Hillbilly Boys with the Texas Playboys.  Wills respectfully and politely declined. There are even some who say that O’Daniel also tried to get O.W. Mayo’s job as the Playboys’ manager. But obviously, Wills turned that proposal down too.

O’Daniel, of course, would go on to win a campaign for Texas Governor in 1938  by using the Hillbilly Boys on the road and employing many of the same musical advertising techniques.   The Collins brothers in Mineral Wells even got in on the act, even allowing O’Daniel to use the airwaves on their Mexican radio station to campaign in South Texas.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, of course, went on to become the stuff of country music legend.

Here’s Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys performing “That’s What I Like About the South”:

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Camp Wolters

Camp Wolters Infantry Replacement Training Center Mineral Wells Texas Historical PhotoOn September 16, 1940, FDR signed the “Selective Service and Training Act” which established the first peacetime draft in US history.  Then, in November of 1940, workers broke ground on Camp Wolters just outside Mineral Wells, Texas.  It would be the largest of four Infantry Replacement Training Centers in the US during WWII.

When construction  was completed in March of 1941, the camp could accommodate over 20,000 soldiers at any given time.  Many of the newly enlisted men that arrived in Mineral Wells in the spring and summer of 1941 were some of the country’s first WWII draftees.

Weatherford native General William Hood Simpson arrived in April 1941 and served as the Commanding Officer of Camp Wolters until October.  He and his wife actually lived at The Baker Hotel in downtown Mineral Wells during their seven month stay.   Later, in 1945, General Simpson would famously lead the US 9th Army across the Rhine and into Germany.

An original fact sheet about Camp Wolters from the Mineral Wells Chamber of Commerce is below:

Camp Wolters Facts Mineral Wells Texas History

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The True Story of “Little Lorraine”

Note: This wonderful story has been paraphrased from The Sacred Harp blog – click here to read the complete story!

Mineral Wells native Lorraine Miles McFarland has been singing as long as she can remember.

Lorraine Miles McFarland Washboard Swingsters WBAP Fort Worth Mineral Wells

Lorraine on WBAP Radio with The Washboard Swingsters (Later known as “The Crazy Gang”)

She got her start singing as a little girl at home with her family and with the Sacred Harp Singers in Mineral Wells.    But soon, she became well known on WBAP radio in Fort Worth as the “yodeling schoolgirl,” singing with the Washboard Swingsters (later known as the “Crazy Radio Gang.”)   When Hal Collins’ began his Crazy Crystals radio program in Mineral Wells, Lorraine joined the cast of characters, broadcasting right from the lobby of the Crazy Water Hotel.

At fifteen, Lorraine was performing to packed crowds at the famed Fort Worth nightspot “The Silver Spur,” and it seemed that her career was about to take off.   But unlike her contemporary Mary Martin, who also got her start on the Crazy Radio Show, Lorraine decided that showbiz life was not for her, and she turned down a contract with an agent who wanted to take her out to Hollywood.

In 1941, at a USO dance in town with some of the men from nearby Camp Wolters, Lorraine met the love of her life: handsome nineteen-year-old Sergeant A.J. “Mac” McFarland.  The two married not long afterward.

Hal Collins, Crazy Radio Gang Campaign tour for Governor in 1941

Hal Collins, Lorraine, and the Crazy Radio Gang on the campaign trail (1941)

Lorraine then agreed to join Hal Collins’ gubernatorial campaign road tour along with  the Crazy Radio Gang, and incumbent Texas Governor W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” O’Daniel. The group traveled by bus, performing from the back of a flatbed truck around Texas.  As loosely parodied by the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Hal Collins and Pappy O’Daniel did indeed use memorable old-fashioned songs and slogans on their campaign trail in order to make an impression on potential voters.  Collins gave away a free mattress to one family at every campaign stop, and Pappy often carried a broom, with which he promised to “sweep out corruption.”

Hal did not win his 1941 bid for governor, and Mac and Lorraine went on to raise a family and travel the world together.

And while no one will ever know for sure what might have happened if she had agreed to go out to Hollywood many years ago, one thing is for sure: this beautiful woman is still singing.

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“We Went Out And Got Rich”

Carr P. Collins, V.A. Collins, Hal Collins Family Photo

L-R: Carr P. Collins, V.A. Collins, Hal Collins

When young Dallas entrepreneurs Carr P. Collins and Hal Collins decided to get into the hotel business in 1926, they had no idea that they would soon be competing directly with one of the most prominent hotel men in Texas: T.B. Baker.

As it happened, Carr owed his older brother Hal some money.  So when he decided to purchase the Crazy Water Company and Hotel in Mineral Wells, he gave him a call.  From the biography Carr P. Collins: Man on the Move:

“Hal,” Carr told him, “you have $35,000 worth of stock in the new Crazy Hotel at Mineral Wells.”

“That’s just great,” replied the puzzled Hal. “Where am I going to get $35,000?”

“Oh,” his brother explained nonchalantly. “That’s the $35,000 I owe you.”

Crazy Water Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Crazy Water Hotel, Mineral Wells

And so the brothers began their new venture in Mineral Wells, starting by rebuilding the recently burned down Crazy Water Hotel.  They made a good team: Carr had a sharp mind for numbers and was already a semi-successful insurance executive in Dallas, and Hal had been busy building a career in sales, advertising, and local politics.

Their father, lawyer and Texas Senator V.A. Collins, would later recall: “A very nice six-story hotel was built on the old hotel site and it was wonderfully arranged and beautifully furnished, but of course it was not without a large investment.  They felt sure when the hotel started it would soon earn enough to take care of all expenses and pay interest on the investment.  They soon found that they were much disappointed in that.  I never saw Carr and Halley get very badly frightened over business before this occurred, but they saw they were falling behind with everything they could do to make ends meet and they became alarmed.”

By the early 30s, the brothers were in deep trouble. The stock market had just crashed, and to make matters worse, the Baker Hotel had just opened in town – and it was twice as tall, had twice as many rooms, and boasted twice the luxury.  The Crazy Water Hotel suddenly found itself obsolete, just two years after its opening, and the brothers’ financial situation was grim.

“The sheriff was two steps behind us,” Hal would later admit.

Hal Collins

Hal Collins

So, out of desperation, they came up with a wild proposal for hotel man T.B. Baker, according to the book Carr P. Collins: Man On The Move:

“With two hotels in operation in Mineral Wells,” recalls Hal, “We decided we were nuts to buck Baker. So we made an appointment with him.  Our suggestion was that our two companies could divide the business, with his taking the hotel profits and ours taking the product profits.”

Baker heard them out silently, then, according to Hal, refused flatly to discuss their proposition.  Says Hal summarily, “We bristled like javelina hogs and went out and got rich. He went broke.”

Their father, V.A. Collins, also wrote:  “They have always been very resourceful and when they saw they could not get through one way they turned to something else, so they began to manufacture Crazy Crystals by the tons and Hal went on the air advertising Crazy Water Crystals. I do not think there was ever a better radio advertiser than he.”

Crazy Water Crystals Plant in Mineral Wells, Texas

Crazy Crystals Plant in Mineral Wells (1930s)

Thanks to several groundbreaking marketing decisions by Hal to advertise on the radio, as well as to launch an old-fashioned musical variety show, product sales quickly soared.  Over the next decade, the brothers would indeed go out and get rich: sales of Crazy Crystals topped $3 million a year for several years.

In the early 40s, the FTC and FDA cracked down on health product claims, and the brothers eventually dropped the business altogether.  Crazy Water, however, is still sold today.

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Video: Camp Wolters & The Baker Hotel 1941

Here is a very rare home video shot in 1941 of an enlisted man and his family, perhaps before he was shipped out.

The first four minutes show the Army Infantry Replacement Training Center at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells as well as some great footage of the Baker Hotel.

Then the location changes to Hot Springs Arkansas. Does that big white hotel look familiar? It is The Arlington, the hotel that architect Wyatt C. Hedrick used as a model for his design of the Baker Hotel. It’s incredible to see both in the same video.

The scenes that follow are most likely from Little Rock and Camp Robinson in Arkansas.

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Who is She?

The Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas Facade

The old Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas sits quietly on the corner of Hubbard and Second – empty, waiting – but not lost.

She is a relic of the past, a reminder of the wealth and prosperity that once flooded the streets of the little Texas spa town. Because of the water, Mineral Wells became a place in time – a place in history – that would connect the fates and futures of the young and the old, the poor and the wealthy, the famous and the unknown. And while The Grand Old Lady may now only be a shadow of what she was, she still whispers her stories to anyone who will stop to listen.

Judge James A. Lynch, founder of Mineral Wells, Texas

Judge James A. Lynch, Founder of Mineral Wells

The story of the Baker begins with the water. When Texas pioneer and Judge James A. Lynch reached the Brazos River Valley with his family and nothing but a wagon and a pair of oxen in 1877, he knew his search for land was over. The green hills, rich valley soil and nearby river made it an ideal spot to put down roots and stay a while. When they dug their first well, however, they discovered that the place had just one drawback – the water was strange – it tasted perhaps even poisonous, they thought. At first, they tried to avoid it by hauling and boiling the river water instead. But when that became too tedious, they went ahead and took their chances with the strange water from the well.

The Judge’s wife was old by now, and she suffered from arthritis. But suddenly, and miraculously, only a few weeks after beginning to drink the mysterious water, she began to feel much better. Her arthritis was healed, she said – and all because of the water.

Early photo Mineral Wells Texas

Mineral Wells’ Early Days

The news spread, and other families moved into the area. They dug their own wells. They brought their sick aunts, their bedridden grandmothers, their children with illnesses and conditions that were deemed untreatable. One of these early visitors was a woman who was reportedly suffering from a mental illness, and she would sit and drink the water, hour after hour, day after day, at one of the wells in the middle of town. The children began to whisper about her, as children do – she was the “crazy woman at the well.” But one day, the woman got up and walked away – claiming that she had been healed – but the well never lost its name. Today, it is known as the Crazy Well, and it’s a very important part of the story.

Crazy Well, Mineral Wells Texas History

The Crazy Well

Just before the turn of the century, tourism in Mineral Wells began to thrive. Enterprising homesteaders began to build wooden pavilions around their wells, and they charged a small fee to passers by in order to sit and drink the water there. Larger guest houses were eventually built, some magnificently Victorian, and some with very unusual creative designs, like the Hexagon House, which was fashioned like a beehive, entirely full of hexagonal shapes, from the rooms to the dinner plates. When the railroad added a spur to Mineral Wells, visitors began flocking in. By this time, there were over twenty different mineral wells advertising their services to the public, and in order to attract clientele many of them added spas, baths, and connected hotels and services. Advertising became critical in order to diversify and promote the unique specialties of each well in treating different kinds of illnesses. Doctors began arriving too – some were legitimate, and some were not- and many set up practices in and around the city.

Mineral Wells Texas Train Station

Tourists at Mineral Wells Train Station

And by now, there was much more to do than just drink the water. In addition to spa baths and massages, there were recreational activities, like boating, hiking, and donkey riding. There were amusement fairs and ice cream parlors. Around the turn of the century, before the roads were even paved, there was even a fancy streetcar that ran up and down the center of the town, and a small railcar that would take a scenic tour around the lake. The people coming into town now were not just the sick and infirm – they were wealthy tourists and health seekers from all over the US and beyond. Local businessmen and entrepreneurial spa owners began to get fabulously rich.

The Crazy Well had become especially popular in town, probably partly because of its name, and the hotel that was connected to the well became large and prosperous. But in 1925, a massive fire burned the entire block, putting a chain of events into motion that would change the landscape of Mineral Wells forever.

Two young brothers from Dallas heard about the fire at the Crazy Hotel, and knowing the town already, they decided to seize the opportunity to get in on the health spa business. So they purchased the Crazy Well, and what remained of the Hotel, and they vowed to build a bigger better building on the same spot. The two men were Carr P. Collins and Hal Collins, sons of Texas Senator Vinson A. Collins. Serious-minded Carr had already achieved some success in Dallas at the Fidelity Union Insurance company, while Hal was an extroverted salesman who had dabbled in owning car dealerships.

Crazy Water Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Crazy Water Hotel, Mineral Wells

When the people of Mineral Wells heard that two Dallas businessmen were taking over their famed landmark, they were not happy. It was unfair, they said, for the most profitable racket in town to be lining the pockets of “outsiders.” And so, just as construction got underway on the new seven story, two-hundred room Crazy Water Hotel, a group of local businessmen and investors secretly hatched a plan to build a rival hotel – one that would be even bigger and better than the Crazy. They solicited funds from concerned citizens throughout Mineral Wells, and scraped together $150,000 to help kickstart the effort. But now, they needed a leader – someone who knew how to do things right.

So they turned to T.B. Baker of San Antonio, the most well-known and respected Texas hotelier at the time. In those days, everybody who was somebody stayed at Baker hotels in Texas. The hotels were known for providing an experience that was stylish, entertaining, unique and cutting edge. When the townspeople of Mineral Wells approached Baker in 1925, he had just recently opened new hotels in Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth. He also owned and operated The Menger, The St. Anthony, and the Gunter Hotel, several of the most prestigious hotels in San Antonio.

The Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

After convincing Baker to accept their $150,000, along with the challenge of building his first resort hotel, they set out together to build a fourteen story, four-hundred room hotel that would cost Baker $1.7 million dollars when all was said and done – twice as much as the Crazy, not to mention twice as tall with twice as many rooms.

Baker quickly secured the engineering and architectural design firm of Wyatt Hedrick, whose buildings are some of the best known art deco buildings in Texas – from the Will Rogers Memorial Center and Texas & Pacific Train Station in downtown Fort Worth, to Texas Tech University buildings. Baker had worked with him before (Hedrick had also designed the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in Austin) , but he had a special task for Hedrick this time – he wanted Mineral Wells on the map as a resort city – so he asked him to design a hotel that would be modeled after the famous Arlington Hotel and Resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas – with the same look, and the same tile and terra cotta Spanish Renaissance design.

Baker also had other complex requirements that Hedrick masterfully wove into the structure, such as a state of the art laundry facility in the basement, back-up generators, full air conditioning in all rooms, ice service, key-controlled lights and fans, one of the first drive-up check-in desks for motorists, an underground tunnel to the garage, and one of the world’s first hotel swimming pools (filled with well water of course). In addition, each art deco detail was of paramount importance to Baker – from the crystal chandeliers in the twelfth-story ballroom, to the colored tiles in each guest bathroom, to the curving terra cotta and iron staircases and carved wood doors in the lobby.

The Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas Original Lobby Photograph 1929

Baker Hotel Lobby, Mineral Wells, Texas (1929)

The hotel’s construction took longer than expected, but when it finally opened in 1929, just two weeks after the stock market crash, guests were amazed by its enormity and beauty. Baker had included everything that someone could wish for in a modern resort hotel. In addition to the pool, which attracted a lot of attention, there was a beautiful dining room, full service mens and womens spa facilities, a windy garden terrace for relaxing and strolling, a dance floor and bandstand on the roof, a fully equipped gymnasium, storefronts and offices for local shops and doctors, a bowling alley, libraries, game rooms, lounges, and of course, the large water pavilion for drinking The Baker’s own brand of water: BakerWell. Baker also bought land near the lake and installed a golf course, trails and recreational boats for guests to use while they stayed at the hotel.

Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas 1920s Grand Opening

Women on the Steps of the Baker Hotel (1929)

Despite the Great Depression of the thirties, tourism was surprisingly steady for the Baker Hotel, thanks in part to the wide disparity of income at the time. The rich and famous still had the money to travel. The hotel became a restful and relaxing oasis in Texas for movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable, personalities like Will Rogers, musicians like Lawrence Welk, politicians like Lyndon Johnson, and even notorious outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde. There was always a Rolls-Royce in the Baker Garage in those days, and the people of Mineral Wells witnessed a kind of Hollywood glamour that typically only existed in the elite places of the world.

Meanwhile, the Crazy Water Hotel down the street began to suffer thanks to the opening of the Baker, and the Collins brothers were in a very tight spot. They couldn’t sell, and they knew that they couldn’t compete against Baker. Out of desperation and terribly close to bankruptcy, they turned to their other asset: the water. But they had two big problems when it came to making money from the Crazy Well. First, selling it to anyone beyond the city of Mineral Wells would be difficult because of the shipping costs. In order to sell “health,” they would have to ship someone a lot of the drinking water, making shipping prohibitive. Second, how could they promote it to a wide audience, and fast? Time was of the essence.

Then, the solution “crystallized.” They had already discovered that if you evaporated the mineral water, you would be left with a white powdery crystalline substance – which were the minerals themselves. If you dissolved these crystals into normal drinking water, they said, you could make gallons and gallons of pure Mineral Wells drinking water and never even have to leave the comfort of your own home. They had been selling the crystals product on the side without heavy promotion for years, but the real benefit to them now of focusing in on selling this product was clear: Crazy Crystals were simple to manufacture, and extremely light and cheap to ship in bulk.

Crazy Crystals Radio Show (1930s)

Crazy Crystals Radio Show (1930s)

Then they turned to their other problem – promotion. They had no time to wait on word of mouth or test newspaper ads – they needed to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, or face bankruptcy. The solution, Hal would later say, “materialized as dramatically as an Old Testament prophet.” The radio. It was a new advertising medium, relatively untried by advertisers, but Hal immediately seized the opportunity. He jumped in his old Model A Ford with a local Mineral Wells country musician, Dick Ware, and drove to Dallas, where they paid $42.50 to get 15 minutes of airtime on KRLD, and they began doing that every Sunday night.

Says Hal in Carr’s biography, Man on the Move by Dorothy Neville: “Dick would start out playing something like ‘Redwing,’ and after that I’d preach. I don’t mean I gave commercials. I preached. The first time we broadcast was in February of 1930. Almost before we got back to Mineral Wells the money was piled up on Carr’s desk.”

Crazy Radio Gang, Crazy Water Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas

Signs for a Crazy Radio Gang Appearance (1930s)

And so the brothers began building their Crazy Crystals empire, which eventually spanned the US, with distributors and satellite offices as far away as Atlanta and Charlotte. The radio show went from fifteen minutes to an hour, and became a full-fledged variety show with old-fashioned hillbilly songs and advertisements for Crazy Crystals. The old fashioned music and nostalgia spoke to people – and they soon had thousands of orders coming in, at sixty cents or one dollar a box. Soon, they began broadcasting the show right from the lobby of the Crazy Water Hotel, and Carr bought a Mexican radio station just across the border in Texas to help further the message. They hired Jack Amlung and his Orchestra, and put together a comedy troupe called The Crazy Gang. Broadway legend Mary Martin famously got her start singing on the show for free, in exchange for the ability to use the upstairs ballroom for giving dance lessons. Traveling musicians and groups like the Light Crust Doughboys often moonlighted on the show in between gigs. The Doughboys had been formed by one-time Texas Governor W. Lee (“Pass the biscuits, Pappy”) O’Daniel, originally in order to market his brand of Burrus Mills “Light Crust Flour” brand from Fort Worth. O’Daniel also later famously used the band, and the Crazy Crystals radio show model, in order to build up his political platform on the radio – a theme that was parodied by the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Carr and Hal coincidentally also dabbled in politics as well, and they were some of Pappy O’Daniels largest supporters for a time. Carr even allowed O’Daniels to use his Mexican Radio station to broadcast his political messages throughout Texas.

As the thirties came to a close, the FTC and FDA began cracking down on health product claims (although there are some who believed that their crackdown came after Hal Collins gave a political speech against the New Deal) and in December of 1940, the Crazy Water Company was issued a cease-and-decist order against promoting their health claims. But by then, the business had already begun to wind down, and the two Collins brothers had already walked away with millions. Carr P. Collins went on to build a legacy in Dallas as a businessman and philanthropist – he ran Fidelity Union Insurance, dabbled in politics, served on boards, funded new housing developments in Dallas, and gave a significant portion his money and time to the Baptist church. The Dallas branch of the Salvation Army is still named after him today.

Meanwhile, T.B. Baker had been forced to reorganize the Baker Corporation due to major financial trouble brought on by the depression, selling many of his hotels, and passing others on to nephews like Earl Baker, who began running the hotel in Mineral Wells. Earl would manage the Baker for thirty years – from the thirties to the sixties. Earl was by then a skilled hotel manager thanks to the tutelage of his uncle, but rumors of his indiscretions as General Manager were common; there are some who say that he kept mistresses in the hotel and enjoyed his liquor just a little bit too much.

Aerial photo of Camp Wolters IRTC (1940s)

Aerial photo of Camp Wolters IRTC (1940s)

Although tourism had been dropping off in Mineral Wells as the interest in the “healing water” and the Crazy Crystals waned, the war years brought a new revival to the city, thanks to a decision (possibly influenced by the Collins brothers who were very well connected politically) to build the largest infantry replacement training center in the US at Fort Wolters, just on the edge of town. As early as 1940, the town was again filled with thousands of visitors – men who had just enlisted or had been drafted into the army, along with their wives and families, who came to visit them one last time before they shipped out. For them, the Baker became the backdrop for many important memories – lavish dances, raucous parties, USO programs, and many tearful goodbyes. Famous visitors like Judy Garland came to stay in the hotel again – but this time to entertain the thousands of men in basic training at Camp Wolters. General William H. Simpson, the Commanding Officer at Camp Wolters in 1941, lived with his wife in the Baker Hotel for nearly a year before famously leading the US Ninth Army across the Rhine in 1945.

Baker Hotel Swimming Pool 1950s Mineral Wells Texas

Swimming Pool at the Baker Hotel (1950s)

After the war, things in town got quieter, but the town of Mineral Wells was determined to reinvent itself yet again, this time as a prime destination for area conventions and meetings. Between 1952 and 1955, both the Republican and Democratic Texas State Conventions were held in and around the Baker Hotel, multiple times. Also in the early fifties, Fort Wolters was reopened as an important Air Force Helicopter Training Base, which also helped to bring in a steady stream of pilots, officers, and families. Big bands continued to play atop the Baker, and visitors enjoyed the pool, along with golf, hiking, and lake sports.

As tourism and interest in the resort town finally began to decline in the early 60s, Earl Baker announced that unless he found a buyer, he would be shutting down the hotel on his 70th birthday in 1963. True to his word, when he turned seventy, he closed the mammoth hotel and moved out of town, disrupting many of the good paying jobs in Mineral Wells. The descendants of the people who had fought so hard to build the Baker in the first place, however, were not so easily defeated. A group of local investors formed the Civic Development Corporation in 1965 and re-opened the Baker to the public.

Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Baker Hotel, 2013

Then, in 1967, Earl Baker decided to pay a quick visit to his old hotel, and he stayed the night in the Baker Suite on the eleventh floor. Mysteriously, the next morning, he was found dead in his room due to a heart attack at age 74. Perhaps it is only a strange coincidence. But there are some who say that the hotel had its own way of repaying the man who had closed its doors.

All this while, hotel entrepreneur T.B. Baker had been living a simple and quiet life with his wife in a small white house in South San Antonio. He was an old man, and his years as a hotel tycoon had been long forgotten; early Texas rivals like Conrad Hilton had long since taken center stage. Not much is known about Baker in later life, but we do know that his wife of fifty years died in 1963 at age eighty-seven. T.B. himself lived to be ninety-six, and died at his home in San Antonio in 1972, the same year that the Baker Hotel closed its doors for the last time. The San Antonio paper ran a blurb about his life, and he was buried alongside his wife, his 2 year old daughter, and his parents up in Kansas.

Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Baker Hotel, 2013

The Baker has been vacant ever since, and has watched new owners and restoration plans come and go. For Mineral Wells residents and others who love the Grand Old Lady, the hope of restoration has been resurrected and abandoned so many times over the last fifty years that many now believe it to be impossible. Pulling it off would undoubtedly cost tens of millions.

To many, the hotel surely looks like an empty shell. Many of the furnishings were sold long ago, and the doors were crudely boarded up. She is leaking, broken, damaged. She has been trashed by vandals and exploited by ghost hunters. But yet she still stands, presiding over North Texas like an ageing queen, unwilling to give up her throne. She is not haunted, at least not in the tawdry sense. But she is full of memories. Full of stories. Full of life. She remembers it all… and she waits for us somewhere behind the broken window panes.

By Amy Oettle


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Mary Martin: Weatherford Whiz

Mary Martin

Mary Martin

Weatherford native Mary Martin was already something of a local legend by the time she opened up her second dance studio in Mineral Wells, Texas, at the top of the Crazy Water Hotel.   Martin, of course, would later go on to star in South PacificPeter Pan, and  many other movies and Broadway shows in her lifetime.  Her son would also be destined for show business: What would Dallas be without Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing?

In the early 1930s, Martin struck an arrangement with Carr and Hal Collins, the owners of the Crazy Water Hotel.  In exchange for giving her full use of the rooftop ballroom for her weekly dance classes in Mineral Wells, Martin would agree to sing on their Crazy Crystals radio show two days a week – Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The Collins brothers had invested in the hotel and water business in Mineral Wells just prior to the depression.  But economic troubles, combined with waning spa tourism and stiff competition from the newer hotel in town, the Baker, meant that the brothers were in a tough spot.   In order to keep from going bankrupt, they identified the one product they offered that could be shipped all over the country on the cheap: Crazy Crystals, made by evaporating their famous mineral water into a white powdery substance.  They claimed that when a small amount was dissolved into normal drinking water, it was just the same as drinking the healthful water of Mineral Wells.

Crazy Water Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Crazy Water Hotel, Mineral Wells, TX

Hal Collins was one of the first marketers in the country to truly take advantage of radio’s potential for advertising – he knew that in order to sell a product, it had to connect with people emotionally – and what better way to do that than on the radio?  Hal knew that most people were looking for a diversion when they turned on their radios: music, stories, and reminders of better times.  And so, the Crazy Crystals Radio Show was born – as part variety show, part sermon.   The old hillbilly folk songs, shouts and announcements seemed to capture the enthusiastic, knee-slapping gusto of old-fashioned country revival.

The show was recorded and broadcast daily, right from the lobby of the Crazy Hotel, and featured Jack Amlung and his Orchestra, the Crazy Gang of musical comedians, and the Light Crust Doughboys.   Many musicians over the years found regular paying jobs playing on the Crazy Crystals program, probably including Western swing legend Bob Wills, who had been playing with the Doughboys.

Soon, the show began to find its way into living rooms all over the country, and the Collins brothers would eventually open up satellite Crazy Crystal offices as far away as Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta.  Some of these offices, including the Charlotte office, launched their own Crazy Radio Shows for regional audiences. Crazy Crystals soon became a national craze, and a multi-million dollar empire, sold for only 60 cents or $1 a box.

Crazy Radio Gang Promotional Appearance

Crazy Radio Gang Promotional Appearance

Although Martin later admitted that she hated singing the hillbilly tunes (she said that she preferred songs like “Stormy Weather”) the performance training and vocal practice she received at the Crazy Water Hotel proved invaluable for the future star.  It was there that she learned how to sing into a microphone, and she learned how to whistle and yodel, too.  From bandleader Jack Amlung, she learned how to manipulate her voice in order to sing the blues, and adapt it based on musical style.  Soon, she became known on the show as “Mary Hagman, the Crazy Girl.”

“This was my first singing job,” Martin said, “Although no money changed hands.”

Martin began to attract a following, and booked her own shows in Fort Worth, Dallas, and beyond.  During this time she continued to teach dance and voice at her studios in Weatherford and Mineral Wells.

In the mid thirties, however, a local man who believed that dancing was a sin burned down her Weatherford studio. Martin was distraught, and eventually decided that it was time for her to move on.  Not long afterward, she left to go try to make it as an actress in Hollywood.

In California, she earned the name “Audition Mary” because of the many roles that she auditioned for.  But her persistence finally paid off when she sang at one such audition for the great Oscar Hammerstein II…  and the rest, as they say, is showbiz history.

Mary Martin, Peter Pan, Broadway

Mary Martin as “Peter Pan” on Broadway

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