Tag Archives: Biography

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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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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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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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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