Category Archives: People

D.W. Griffith: A Little Bit of Hollywood in Mineral Wells

D.W. Griffith, Crazy Water Hotel Roof ~1929

D.W. Griffith, Crazy Water Hotel Roof ~1929

Legendary Hollywood movie director D.W. Griffith was an early pioneer of film in America, known for his silent movies between 1908-1924.  Some of our nation’s very first movie stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin starred in Griffith’s films. He is also largely credited for inventing many important features of the craft, including the “close up,” the “fade out” and the moving camera.  Griffith was the first to attach a camera to a moving vehicle (and even to a custom-built elevator!) in order to get moving action shots and wide, panoramic views.

However, Griffith’s work was not without controversy, and his famous film “The Birth of a Nation” was criticized as being highly racist.  He was also not able to make the jump from silent films into “talkies” in the early 30s – and his films with full sound failed to resonate with audiences and critics.  It’s possible that his unfortunate situation may have lent some inspiration to the 1952 musical comedy “Singin’ In the Rain.”

According Richard Schickel’s biography of Griffith, the director visited Mineral Wells “to dry out” during the “last spring of the decade.” The year was 1929, just before the Baker Hotel opened in November.  Griffith stayed at the Crazy Water Hotel according to telegraph records, and there’s a great picture of him standing on the roof of the Crazy Water (Photo taken from “Time Was in Mineral Wells” by A.F. Weaver).

Local folklore has it that the “WELCOME” sign on East Mountain inspired the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, and that D.W. Griffith has some connection to that. Unfortunately the timeline doesn’t match up, and the legend is likely a false one.  However, it is true that the big white Mineral Wells “WELCOME” sign on East Mountain went up in 1922, a year before the famous “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign in 1923. It’s also true that Mineral Wells was a resort mecca for Hollywood types back in the ’20s.

So who knows? Maybe there’s a little Hollywood magic in Mineral Wells.

Hollywood Sign, Welcome Sign

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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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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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Will Rogers At The Baker

450px-Will_Rogers_-_1940s_-_colorThe Cherokee cowboy-philosopher, humorist, and actor known as Will Rogers was perhaps one of the world’s best known celebrities throughout the 20s and 30s. Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” he penned countless stories and newspaper articles, starred in vaudeville shows and motion pictures, and perfected his own unique brand of folksy political satire and humorous social commentary that spoke to the heart of the culture of the time.

Sometime in the early 1930s before Rogers’ untimely death in 1935 (at the young age of 55) he visited the famous Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. The photograph below shows him standing on the front steps with Mineral Wells Mayor Charlton Brown along with other unidentified local citizens. The banner behind him says: Welcome to Mineral Wells, Where America Drinks its Way to Health.

Will Rogers at Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells in Early 1930s

Will Rogers at The Baker Hotel (Early 1930s)

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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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Judy Garland’s Stay at The Baker

Judy Garland visited Mineral Wells in 1943 as part of a USO tour, entertaining the men in basic training at nearby Camp Wolters, which was the largest of four infantry replacement training centers in the US during WWII.

She stayed at the Baker Hotel in room 703, and made several appearances in town.  The photograph below shows her mailing a letter at the post office, just up the hill from the Baker Hotel.

In a story printed in the Mineral Wells Index in November 2009, local resident Betty Scott remembers the day that her husband, who worked in the maintenance department at the Baker Hotel, got to meet Judy Garland:

“Lawrence wanted to see her so the guys in the maintenance department said that the air conditioning in Miss Garland’s room had a problem and they sent Lawrence up to her room to take care of it. Miss Garland was in her room at the time, as the story goes. She was sitting at her vanity in her dressing gown. She let Lawrence in to work on the air conditioning and he got to see her in person. This was probably one of his greatest moments because he told everyone back then he got to see her in person and that she was very nice.”

Judy Garland mails a letter at the Mineral Wells Post Office (1943)

Judy Garland mails a letter at the Mineral Wells Post Office (1943)

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The “Greatest Hotel Man of the South”

Considered by many to be “The Greatest Hotel Man of the South” prior to the stock market crash of 1929, Theodore Brasher Baker and his hotels were at one time poised to become a household name. By the late twenties, Baker had built a chain of prestigious hotels that stretched from San Antonio, Texas to Birmingham, Alabama. During the Great Depression, Baker and many other prominent Texas hotel men like Conrad Hilton found themselves in dire financial straits. However, while Hilton was able to salvage part of his business and build it back up into the company that we know today, unfortunately T.B. Baker and his chain of luxury hotels were not so lucky.

T.B. Baker (c.1910  ~35 years old)

T.B. Baker (c.1910 ~35 years old)

Baker was a self-made man, the youngest of five children born to a farming family from Iowa and Kansas. In the late 1890s, at around age twenty, he went into the steam laundry business with a partner, but soon discovered that his ambitions were leading him elsewhere. After selling his interest in the business, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps into hotel management, starting out as the night clerk at the Avenue Hotel in his hometown of Beloit, Kansas.

After learning the ropes for eighteen months, he moved quickly to lease, and later purchase, his first hotel in 1899 – the Greenwood Hotel in Eureka, Kansas. It was here that he would eventually meet and marry his wife Mamie “Mae” Crawley, a Tennessee native. Baker was twenty-eight years old when they married in 1903.

During the decade following the turn of the century, the Bakers managed and owned four other hotels, in addition to the Greenwood: The Whitley Hotel in Emporia, Kansas, the Kingfisher Hotel in the Oklahoma Territory, the Goodlander Hotel in Fort Scott, Kansas, and the Illini Hotel in Alton, Illinois.

It was during this time that Mae gave birth to their only child, Mary. Tragically, Mary died of unknown causes just two years later.

In 1910, Baker sold some of his properties, including the Goodlander Hotel in Fort Scott, in order to acquire his first large scale luxury hotel: the historic Connor Hotel in Joplin, Missouri. Operating the Connor allowed the Bakers to put down roots for several years in a larger city and become respected members of the community. In a short biography written about Baker in 1912, the author states that he is “sedulously devoted to his business” and “is esteemed as one of the most enterprising, representative and estimable citizens of Jasper county.”

Then, in 1914, Baker took a business trip to San Antonio, Texas that would forever change the course of his life. While in the city, he visited the historic St. Anthony hotel and became acquainted with its owner. Less than a year later, he sold the Illini Hotel in Alton, IL, and purchased the St. Anthony, marking his first bold debut into Texas. The St. Anthony continues to be an important and historic downtown luxury hotel in San Antonio today. Soon afterward, he purchased the historic Menger Hotel, also in San Antonio, and still in operation. The Menger was already famous at the time, thanks in part to Teddy Roosevelt and his habit of recruiting Rough Riders over whiskey at the Menger bar. Richard King himself, of King Ranch fame, was also connected to the Menger. When he died in his sleep at the hotel in 1885, his legend became the fodder for ghost stories for years to come.

T.B. and Mae were joined in San Antonio by T.B.’s older sister Myla. Together the three of them began to build up a respectable reputation for the Baker name in San Antonio society while operating the St. Anthony and the Menger. They often took long ship voyages to Europe to visit its hotels and to gather ideas for their own properties. They often brought back huge crates of furniture, china, and other artifacts that they would later install in their own hotels.

T.B. Baker (c.1923 ~Age 48)

T.B. Baker (c.1923 ~48 years old)

1921 marked a new milestone for Baker when he built his first hotel from the ground up: the Texas Hotel in the heart of Cowtown – Fort Worth, Texas. It was followed quickly by the Stephen F. Austin hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, which opened its doors for the first time in 1923. Both hotels are still operational – the former as a Hilton and the latter as an Intercontinental.

The twenties kept on roaring for the Baker family. In 1924 at age forty-nine, Baker was finally able to purchase the hotel he had perhaps had his eye on for years: the Gunter Hotel, in the heart of San Antonio, right across from the famous Majestic Theatre. Baker spent a considerable amount of money redesigning the lobby and adding three floors of luxury suites onto the top of the hotel. T.B. and Mae moved into one of these large apartments, and Myla also had her own suite, where they lived comfortably for many years.

It is clear that Baker was highly involved in designing and managing many facets of his prestigious hotels, and that he was extremely innovative as well. Many of them featured new amenities and services that had rarely been seen in US hotels, such as in-room ice water, childcare, backup generators, and state of the art laundering facilities. Many alsofeatured elaborate glass-enclosed rooftop terraces where big bands would play well into the night, becoming a favored night spot not only for hotel guests, but also for the wealthy and elite.

Baker firmly believed that details were important. In the case of the Gunter Hotel, in order to envision the remodeling changes he hoped to make, he ordered a lumberyard in South San Antonio to build a full scale working model of the new proposed lobby with old lumber and cheesecloth. He would then walk through the model, adjusting walls, columns, doorways and design elements himself to perfect the right sense of space for the grand room. Then he would call his architect.

As Baker was busy planning the renovations to the Gunter, an important hotel in the thriving North Texas health spa town of Mineral Wells suddenly burned down, setting a chain of events into motion that would forever tie the Baker name to the town of Mineral Wells. When the landmark Crazy Water Hotel burned, a prominent businessman from Dallas named Carr P. Collins decided to seize the opportunity to get into the hotel and mineral water business. Along with his brother Hal, they unveiled plans for a bigger, better Crazy Water Hotel that would be built on the same spot.

The citizens of the then thriving tourist town were not happy to hear that Dallas outsiders were planning to make money off of their city. Several prominent members of the business community came together to raise money with the goal of building their own hotel – one that would would put more money back into local pockets. But they needed to find a major investor, and they needed a leader – someone who knew how to navigate the hotel business. So in 1925, they sought out T.B. Baker in San Antonio, and proposed that he build a large Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.

Surprisingly, Baker agreed to accept their initial investment of $150,000 in order to break ground on the massive 450 room hotel that would eventually cost a total of $1.7 million to build. The Mineral Wells project offered Baker something new – it would be his first and only resort. Mineral Wells was already a thriving destination, known worldwide for its healing drinking water and mineral baths. He decided that the Baker Hotel there would be a ground-breaking hotel not just for Texas, but also for the country – it would be one of the first in the nation to have a swimming pool, full air-conditioning, and key-controlled lights. It would also be twice as tall as the Crazy Water Hotel, and have twice as many rooms.

Meanwhile, only two months after Hilton’s first name-brand hotel opened in downtown Dallas in August 1925, Baker’s brand new Dallas Baker Hotel in opened just a few blocks away with one of the swankiest rooftop parties that the city had ever seen, held under the stars on the Peacock Terrace. Unfortunately, the hotel has long since been torn down to make way for another new Dallas high-rise.

In the latter half of the twenties, Baker unveiled bigger and bigger plans for his company and began many other projects in addition to constructing the new resort in Mineral Wells. In 1928, he also bought the historic Galvez Hotel in Galveston (now a Wyndham).

T.B. Baker (c.1929 ~Age 54)

T.B. Baker (c.1929 ~54 years old)

But 1929 truly marked the biggest year ever for the Baker Corporation. T.B. opened five brand new hotels to the public: The Hotel San Luis, also in Galveston, the Edson Hotel in Beaumont, Texas, the Goodhue Hotel in Port Arthur, Texas, the Thomas Jefferson in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally, the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, which opened with a glamorous Grand Opening gala just two weeks after the infamous stock market crash in November 1929.

The early thirties brought rocky times for Baker, although his financial difficulties may not have affected him immediately. In 1930, he was involved in leasing the art-deco Aurora Apartment Hotel in San Antonio and may have also purchased a large estate there. However, T.B. was soon plagued by financial woes brought on by the Great Depression, and the Baker Corporation was eventually forced to sell some of its properties and divide the rest into several different holding companies. Several of those companies were placed under ownership and management of two of T.B.’s nephews: Fenton J. Baker (who managed and then owned the Dallas Baker) and Earl M. Baker (who managed and then owned both the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio and the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells).

T.B’s sister Myla moved permanently into the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells in 1933, where she would stay until she died in 1950. Census records indicate that T.B. and Mae continued living at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, and that they may have been involved with managing the hotel in some capacity in the thirties and forties. However, little else is known about their lives for the thirty year period that followed.

In 1963, the same year that Earl Baker closed the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells for the first time, T.B.’s wife Mae died. She was eighty-seven. T.B. lived quietly for nine more years in a small bungalow in South San Antonio until he died there at age ninety-six. The very same year in 1972, the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells closed its doors for the very last time, and it has been vacant ever since.

By Amy Oettle

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