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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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