When my mother first saw Ben Wheeler on my summer itinerary she asked me why I hadn’t told her I was seeing someone new. “Seeing someone?” I asked in confusion. “Ben Wheeler?” she responded. “Ha!!” I couldn’t contain my amusement. “That’s the name of the city, Mom,” I laughed. “Oh!” she responded, followed by a look of bewilderment. “Where’s that?”
I got that kind of response a lot when sharing my summer itinerary. My friends in Italy, on the other hand, who had studied Ben Wheeler with me in our urban planning class, couldn’t wait for me to get there. When my trip was confirmed we immediately got on google earth and happened to find a building with the word “salon” on it in the middle of what appeared to be a small concentration of buildings, which I have since learned were photographed before the area’s transformation. Was this downtown perhaps? “Looks like you have a spa date, Peggy!” laughed my friend Lauren. “I’m going to like every post you make on Facebook from Ben Wheeler, TX,” she giggled sincerely, perched on a chair in our favorite hangout in Bologna, Italy.
My friend from Austin messaged me when he found out about the trip. “Why Ben Wheeler? Why not Austin or Houston or Dallas?” My answer was simple – I was researching Ben Wheeler. After three years of following the transformation of this forgotten little place in East Texas as it blossomed into a little community with the help of a man with a heart, a checkbook, and a vision, I was as curious as curious could be about what I would find.
As it turns out, my wildest imagination couldn’t have prepared me for what I had in store. Now, don’t get me wrong – Ben Wheeler absolutely delivered on what Texas does best. I got my fair share of unsweet tea, fried pickles, big trucks, ranch dressing, cowboy boots, four-wheelin’, opinionated white guys, huntin’ stories, Obama jokes, guns, critters, and Coors light (imagine this said with an East Texas twang).
But the surprises came just as quickly. My first big one was on the drive from the airport. “There are lakes in Texas!?” I exclaimed naively as we drove by a beautiful town nestled along the banks of a man-made lake. This was a shock. I love the Texas landscape, and with a few lakes in the mix I am a happy tourist, happily enjoying a relaxing afternoon suntanning by the lake and sipping unsweet tea.
But the part of Ben Wheeler that came as the biggest surprise was being part of a community. I guess because I have never lived in a real, authentic community before, so I had no idea what a real community felt like. I guess I’m not so uncommon, though. The lucky few of us that can say we live in a community lead a different sort of life. The community of Ben Wheeler is a place where people don’t lock their front doors. They keep their keys in their ignitions. They go out to dinner without making plans to meet anyone because they know their friends will show up at some point and at the very least they can catch up with the restaurant staff. Or look out the restaurant window at the world going by in their picture perfect downtown. If they need to repair their fence, they ask their neighbor.
I personally interviewed 97 people in Ben Wheeler. People that had retired here sounded like a broken record, “We never knew a single one of our neighbors the entire time we lived in Dallas. Now we know everybody.” A 20-something runaway told me, “I just got into my car and drove and ended up in downtown Ben Wheeler and my first thought was, ‘I think this is my last stop in life.'” Young families told me, “We wanted our kids to grow up where we didn’t have to worry about them playing in the front yard alone.” And a man that lives in the next town over mused about moving to Ben Wheeler, “Sometimes I sit here (in downtown Ben Wheeler) listening to music with friends, enjoying the evening, and we say to each other, ‘Isn’t this what it’s all about?'”
It sure makes a city girl think. And think hard. After enjoying little villages across Italy and longing for the charm of these spirited places in America, Ben Wheeler has revitalized my faith that life in America doesn’t just have to be about shopping trips to Target, working out at 24 hour fitness, and waiting for your friends to get out of traffic after work so you can grab a drink at The Cheesecake Factory. There are still true communities out there, defined by a simpler way of life, individuality and real connection between the people that makes them strong. In these places, they really actually want to know your name. And they’ll remember it.
Thanks to Brooks Gremmels in Ben Wheeler – the man with the vision – his wife Reese, and their amazing team including Jenni, Donley, Steve, and the rest of fabulous Ben Wheeler for what you’ve done for community. I’ve definitely “Ben Revived.” 🙂
Best of Ben Wheeler, a set on Flickr.