Whatever Happened to T.B. Baker?

T.B. Baker, Baker Hotel Corporation

T.B. Baker (1929) ~50 yrs old

In October of 1929, just a month before the stock market crashed, and just a month before the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells opened, The San Antonio Newspaper ran a full page spread on T.B. Baker, the man who was “the most prominent hotel man in the South.” It’s worth noting that both Conrad Hilton and the Moody family out of Houston (with their National Hotel Company) were also competing with Baker in the race to build their own Texas hotel empires. During the roaring twenties, the oil boom was still carrying the economy forward in a flurry of activity, and men like Baker, Hilton and Moody saw their fortunes well within their reach. But when things got bad in the early thirties, they got very bad. Hilton would later write in his autobiography that he went to mass every morning to pray that he would make it through just one more day.

T.B. Baker San Antonio Express

San Antonio Express, October 29, 1929

Several articles suggest that as late as 1931, T.B. Baker was seen entertaining friends at the Savoy Hotel in London, and had taken trips to Paris. But just as quickly as his name had risen to prominence, it seemed to vanish.

T.B. Baker’s world seems to have imploded in March 1933. That month, the Baker Corporation sent a letter to all of their stockholders, telling them that the hotel business had been hard hit and that they would be unable to pay out dividends. Next, the Gunter was peeled off from other Baker Hotels and reorganized into the “Gunter Hotel Company” under different leadership and with the primary goal of paying back and satisfying the largest creditors. But minor stockholders suffered under this plan, and later that year the Baker Corporation was sued. What happened next is still somewhat unclear.

The Gunter Hotel, at least, was handed over to Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1934 to manage it as trustee, until it could be placed back with the Baker Family. A similar situation happened with the Baker Hotel in Dallas after a lengthy court proceeding, in which the hotel was almost sold to the Moody family, but T.B.’s nephew Fenton J. Baker won the suit, was put in charge of the hotel and eventually regained full ownership.

T.B. Baker in 1925 (~45 years old)

T.B. Baker in 1925 (~45 yrs old)

The Baker in Mineral Wells seems to be unique in that it did remain with the Baker family during this time, but was reorganized into the “Resort Hotel Company.”

It is yet unclear about what happened to all of his other hotels and at what point the Baker Corporation may have sold them or relinquished control.

Then, in 1936, Earl M. Baker, T.B.’s other nephew, re-emerged as the buyer of the Bakers’ beloved Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, and took it back from the Life Insurance Company that had held it for the previous two years.

All the while, no mention is ever made of T.B. Baker, who did indeed still live in San Antonio. There are some who say that Earl may have found a way to take the hotels away from him. While more research is needed to find out if that statement is true, there was definitely some contention in the family. T.B.’s unmarried sister Myla (Earl’s aunt) fought a lengthy court battle against Earl from 1942 to 1948 for control of the common stock of the Gunter Hotel, which Earl eventually won.

T.B. seems to have faded into the background after 1933. He lived quietly, simply, in a small white house in South San Antonio until he died in 1972 at age 96 – nearly forty years after the turmoil of the thirties. What did he do for forty years? How does one rebuild a life of simplicity after one of such ambitious success and lavish luxury? Therein lies a story yet untold.

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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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The Goodhue

The Goodhue Hotel, a Baker Hotel in Port Arthur Texas (1930s)

The Goodhue Hotel, Port Arthur (1930s)

Invitation to the public for Goodhue Hotel Grand opening in Port Arthur TexasIn 1929, T.B. Baker was on a roll.  Within a six month period, he opened 5 brand new hotels, the last one being The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells (which opened in November).   However, another Baker that opened only a few months earlier was the 11 story, 160 room Goodhue Hotel in Port Arthur Texas.

J. Forrest Goodhue, a local builder and civic leader, was helping to build the hotel with local funds when he died of a heart attack in January 1929 – while the building was still under construction.

The original name of the Goodhue Hotel was planned to be “The Dick Dowling Hotel” in honor of the Confederate Civil War hero of the same name.  In fact, you may see “The Dick Dowling Hotel” on some of the early promotional postcards for the building.  In April of 1929, however, Baker formally announced that the building would officially be called “The Goodhue Hotel” going forward, simply because “Everyone called it Goodhue instead.”

Over the years, the grand hotel weathered several hurricanes along the stormy Texas coast, including Hurricane Audrey in 1957.

Goodhue Hotel Port Arthur Hurricane Audrey 1957

Cleaning up after Hurricane Audrey at the Goodhue Hotel (1957)

The Goodhue was in the news again in 1970, when Janis Joplin came back to her hometown just months before her death to attend her ten-year high school class reunion.  She gave a press conference in the second floor ballroom of the hotel.

After shutting down in the eighties, the building was demolished in 1990, allegedly due to poor structural integrity. The site is still a vacant lot today.

Interestingly, the Hotel Sabine a block away was built around the same time, and is still standing today (although it is currently vacant and in need of renovation).  That building may have survived the coastal conditions longer than the Goodhue because of the cypress pilings that the Hotel Sabine’s builders reportedly added under every inch of the structure.

Advertisement in Port Arthur News, 29 Sep 1929

Advertisement in Port Arthur News, 29 Sep 1929

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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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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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Video: “The Beauty of the Baker”

Here is a fantastic video tribute by Bill Carter that shows the Baker Hotel as it looks today.

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The Stephen F. Austin Hotel

Stephen F. Austin Baker Hotel in Austin, Texas (1924)

Stephen F. Austin Hotel in Austin, Texas (1924)

Stephen F. Austin Baker Hotel Registration Desk, Austin Texas

Registration Desk, Stephen F. Austin Hotel (1930)

In 1924, T.B. Baker of San Antonio opened his fourth Texas Hotel, The Stephen F. Austin, at the corner of Congress and Seventh Street in Austin. It was designed by Fort Worth firm Sanguinet, Staats and Hedrick, led by legendary architect Wyatt C. Hedrick.  Baker would later hire Hedrick again to design and build the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas.

In the early twenties, the citizens of Austin saw the need for a large hotel in Austin, and they invested $600,000 in mortgage bonds with the Chamber of Commerce to help fund the project.  After forming a partnership with The Baker Hotel Corporation, the hotel’s construction was completed in 1924 for a total cost of $775,000.

Congress & Sixth Street (1913)

Congress & Sixth Street (1913)

The location of the hotel on Congress was the former site of the old Keystona Hotel (a wood-framed three story building which was torn down to accommodate the Stephen F. Austin).  Prior to that, the area had been used as a feed lot for horses.  In the picture on the left, you can see Congress Avenue as it appeared in 1913, looking toward the capitol building from sixth street.  The nine story building on the right side of the photograph is the Littlefield building that had a rooftop terrace.  The ten-story Baker went up just behind this building, with the ballroom perched high at the top.

Note: Thanks to Mike at IHG for the additional historical information about the photograph!

As the new hotel was being constructed, a local club called the “Business and Professional Women’s Group of Austin” heard that Baker was planning to call the new hotel “The Texas,” (which is also the name of Baker’s hotel in Fort Worth), and began a campaign to change the name to something more locally significant.  Together with other activist groups, they successfully lobbied to convince Baker to honor the city’s history with a new name: “The Stephen F. Austin”.

10th Floor Rooftop Ballroom at Stephen F. Austin Baker Hotel (1924) Texas

Rooftop Ballroom – Stephen F. Austin (1924)

When the  hotel opened in May 1924, it boasted 250 rooms and was the tallest building in Austin, at 10 stories high.   Uniquely, the hotel featured running ice water in the rooms, along with a coffee shop and U-shaped soda fountain on the ground floor. The 10th floor ballroom quickly became a fashionable spot for parties and events, competing with the historic Driskill Hotel just around the corner, which had been built in 1888.

Over the years the Stephen F. Austin has been a favorite spot for many politicians, and has served as campaign headquarters for many governors, as well as for Lyndon Johnson’s 1937 House of Representatives win.

In 1938, Five more floors were added to the building, again making it the tallest building on Congress for several more years.  The building went through many changes under various owners until 1998, when it was restored to the original architectural plans and brought back to much of it’s original splendor.  Today, the property is owned and operated by Intercontinental Hotel Group.

A menu from the coffee shop in 1929 is shown below.  Note that most of the prices are listed in cents!

Menu from the Stephen F. Austin Baker Hotel, 1929, Austin Texas

Menu – Stephen F. Austin Hotel (1929)

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The Model for The Baker: The Arlington

So the story goes, on a visit to the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, T.B. Baker was so inspired by the look of the Spanish Revival style hotel that he asked his Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick to create a similar design for the new resort in Mineral Wells.

The Arlington Hotel that is still operational today was built in 1924, on top of the ruins of the previous two Arlington Hotels – the first was razed to build the second, and the second burned in a fire in 1923.

You can certainly see striking similarities between the two hotels, from the bell towers, to the winged layout, to the vaulted veranda promenade on the lower level.

There are, however, some notable differences aside from the presence of only one bell tower atop the Baker. Other innovations that are unique to the Baker include a lavish rooftop terrace and ballroom, a swimming pool, full air conditioning and ample retail store space along the street level.

Note: While some information about the Baker states that the architect Wyatt C. Hedrick also designed the Arlington hotel, there does not appear to be any historical documentation to confirm that. The architect officially on record for the Arlington Hotel is George R. Mann, who also designed the Arkansas State Capitol Building.

The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs Arkansas

The Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs Arkansas

The Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells Texas

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