Texas songwriter Brian Burns wrote a wonderful ballad about the Grand Old Lady called Ghosts of the Baker Hotel.
Check out the words and listen to a clip, or listen to the full song via YouTube below.
Before 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 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.
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.
A great video showing what the hotel looked like then and now.
A contact recently provided me with a great old color photograph of 1920s Texas hotel magnate T.B. Baker at Christmas-time. My best guess is that it was taken in the mid-sixties. Here he is – around 1910 (~age 35) and around
1965 1958 (age 83).
Cheers to the hope that his Grand Old Lady will finally be restored in the new year.
Earl Maynard Baker, the nephew of hotel tycoon T.B. Baker, ran two of the Baker hotels for most of his adult life. He was General Manager of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio for over twenty years before he sold it almost at once when his uncle T.B. turned over the deed in the fifties. Perhaps even more famously, for forty years he also managed (and later owned) the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells until his death in 1967. During his tenure as owner, he unsuccessfully attempted to get rid of the Grand Old Lady on several occasions, and he famously followed through on his ultimatum to shut it down on his 70th birthday in 1963 if he didn’t find a buyer. However, the hotel did re-open again from 1965-1972, thanks to the efforts of a group of scrappy local businesspeople who wouldn’t let the landmark go – they paid Earl monthly rent to keep the doors open.
History has not been especially kind to Earl’s memory. Are some of the stories true? Probably. But are some of them just rumors? Probably. Based on research done so far, I’ll attempt to help separate the two:
Did Earl have a mistress named Virginia Brown who killed herself inside the Baker Hotel? It is not known whether a woman named Virginia Brown (or any mistress) existed at all, although the ghost hunter programs that routinely film inside the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells would certainly like you to think so. According to some, the specter of Earl’s mistress Virginia still haunts her suite on the seventh floor, stopping to flirt with male visitors. More than one person has mentioned smelling her perfume or sensing a playful spirit. What is certain, however, is that no young woman ever killed herself inside the Baker hotel (and for the record, nobody ever jumped from the balcony to the pool, either.) That said, what we do know is that Earl and his wife divorced at some point, and that he did not remarry. There are enough rumors surrounding his character to make the mistress story believable, but it has not been confirmed.
And I certainly don’t have any information about who these two ladies might be with him in the picture above. Aside from the fact that there are two women sitting on his lap, that cheetah print fur is telling us quite a story of it’s own – am I right? Edit to original post: The woman in cheetah fur has been identified as Mr. Baker’s wife, Gladys.
Did Earl engage in court battles with his family? Yes. In the 1940s, Earl and his elderly aunt Myla (who I believe lived at the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells at the time) were engaged in a lengthy court battle in Texas over shares to the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. When T.B. had money to do so, he had always provided for his unmarried sister Myla, but it appears that something bitter and contentious happened between Earl and Myla later on. The detailed court records of this case were recently discovered, in fact, and I look forward to updating you on what I find out.
Did Earl have a drinking problem? Sources seems to suggest – probably. Several pictures and brochures found in his personal effects after he died suggest that he struggled with alcohol. The picture to the left may have been taken inside an office in the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.
Did Earl die at the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells? Yes and no. After Earl closed the hotel on his 70th birthday in 1963, unhappy local Mineral Wells businesspeople scraped together the funds to re-open the aging hotel, hoping to keep the tourism in town alive. Then, at some point in 1967, Earl came back to the hotel. Some say that he had just come back for a quick visit, and others suggest that he might have begun living in the Baker Suite. In any case, on December 3, 1967, Earl had a heart attack in the Baker Suite on the eleventh floor and subsequently died in the hospital in Mineral Wells. Earl was 74 years old.
On November 16, 1922, The San Antonio Evening News announced that T.B. Baker had completed negotiations to build what would become the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in downtown Austin, although the (now famous) location on Congress Avenue had not yet been selected.
It seems that the hotel was designed to have fifteen stories all along, but purposefully, only eleven of them were completed for the grand opening in 1924. The original rooftop ballroom terrace (now gone) was intended to be temporary all along! When the new owner added the additional floors in the mid-thirties, did they know that they were completing Baker’s original vision for a 15 story hotel?
The article also mentions that one of Baker’s “new” ideas for the future hotel revolved around serving local Austinites: it would feature an unusually large lobby for the purpose of being used as an open meeting space for lawyers, UT students, and legislators.
I’m very excited to be able to post two recently discovered photos of T.B. Baker, the original builder and operator of The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. A family member who knew him confirmed that this is indeed “Uncle Pete” (as he was called among family). I’m thrilled to see that our favorite 1920s hotel tycoon is looking dapper, even well into his seventies.
The first photograph shows a relaxed family scene from what appears to be the mid-thirties, when Baker would have been about 60. He fell on hard times during the Depression, and his clothing seems to reflect that.
This second photograph was dated 1952, when T.B. Baker would have been about 76. Love that he is wearing a double breasted suit and standing in front of a Cadillac! The same year in 1952, T.B. Baker turned over his final ownership of all remaining hotels (including the Gunter Hotel) to his nephew Earl M. Baker.
Lawrence Welk recalls entertaining in the Sky Room at the top of the Baker Hotel in the 1930s, back when he could barely speak English:
“I remember the Baker as one of the more lavish hotels in Texas,” he said, “A famed resort. Lots of rich ladies.”
He also often played in the dining room of the Dallas Baker Hotel for lunchtime guests.
Here is a video of a Lawrence Welk performance from 1938, which is probably an indication of what his performances at the Baker were like:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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”: