In my spare time, and when the thought occurs to me, I enjoy browsing the Digital Video Repository of the Moving Image Research Collections (or MIRC) at the University of South Carolina, a vast online archive of historical film footage, much of which consists of newsreels footage. Often, I’ll just enter some different search terms and see if I can find anything interesting. It was on one such online excursion that I stumbled across a newsreel (or rather outtakes thereof) depicting the arrival of the famed humorist, movie star, and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers in San Antonio, Texas, that caught my attention. I am (as any red-blooded American surely must be) counted among Will Rogers’ legion of admirers, but his presence was not what attracted my interest to the video. Rather, it was the appearance of a background character that struck me as a familiar face.
Situated about fifty miles to the west of Fort Worth, lies the small city of Mineral Wells, Texas. In its heyday, the first half of the twentieth century, Mineral Wells was a popular destination for travelers from all around the United States, owing to the mineral rich water, claimed to have extraordinary health benefits, that was discovered under the grounds there in 1880. Over the course of the next century, the water from Mineral Wells grew into a major industry, drawing nationwide attention to the little Texas town, and even making it into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Untited States. Today, the town is quiet and empty, almost like a ghost town, yet still oozing with small town charm. Though it is still occupied, and its population today is even greater than in the old days, many of the buildings in the old downtown section are now vacant and decaying, awaiting hopeful restoration.
After the water that put Mineral Wells on the map was discovered, bathhouses attracted visitors and enterprising businessmen moved in to capitalize on the product, the companies they founded there, the most famous of them being the Crazy Water Company, claimed their water cured everything from rheumatism to insanity. These entrepreneurs also produced a wide variety of other products related to the water, like the Crazy Crystals shown above, which consisted of the remaining minerals after the water was evaporated. The idea was to add the crystals to your own water, thus recreating Mineral Wells’ water for yourself. Unfortunately, removed from the original water, they had little effect. In 1940, the Federal Trade Commission issued a cease and desist order to the makers of those crystals, in response to their increasingly outlandish claims of its benefits. Another memorable product was “Dismuke’s Pronto-Lax”, a product occasionally plugged retroactively by Dismuke, the eponymous host of Fort Worth’s own Radio Dismuke (which, if you like this site, and don’t already know about, you should check out).
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Mineral Wells played host to training camps for baseball teams, including the Spring Training Camp for the Chicago White Sox, the year of the infamous 1919 World Series and “Black Sox Scandal”. Many years later, towards the end of their prime, the Texas Republican convention of 1952 was held in the town. During the golden age of old time radio, Mineral Wells played host to a number of shows put on by the makers of Crazy Water that could be heard around the States. Perhaps the most popular of those shows was the Crazy Hillbillies Program, a country and western program comparable to the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago or the WSM Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. A few artists from the Mineral Wells shows made records during the Great Depression, which are now very uncommon today.
When entering the quiet town of Mineral Wells, the first sight you’ll see is the monstrous but sadly derelict Baker Hotel, opened November 9, 1929, only days after the stock market crash on Black Thursday. The hotel was conceived when locals feared that outsiders were profiting from their mineral water more than they were, so the residents contracted prominent Texas hotelier Theodore Baker to construct a new hotel that would benefit locals. The first skyscraper ever built outside of a metropolitan area, the enormous hotel was designed by Texas architect Wyatt C. Hedrick, who was also responsible for the Will Rogers Memorial Center and the Texas and Pacific Complex in Fort Worth. In spite of the Depression, the Baker was quite successful during the 1930s, and it attracted a host of famous guests. The hotel continued to operate until 1972, when it finally shut its doors, and has been vacant ever since. Today, there are plans to renovate the hotel with a 1920s theme, and local sources indicate a planned start date of January 2017 for the project.
The other major hotel in town during Mineral Wells’ golden years was the Crazy Water Hotel, built on the site of the third well dug in the town. The first hotel was erected there in 1912, and burned down in 1925, the building that stands today opened its doors in 1927. It served as home to most of the radios shows based in Mineral Wells in the 1930s, including the Crazy Hillbillies. After it ceased operation as a hotel, the former Crazy Hotel operated as a retirement home until very recently. Now, unfortunately, it too stands vacant.
Hopefully, sometime in the near future, the charming town of Mineral Wells will experience a renaissance, and new life will be breathed into the old bones of the wonderfully charming but faded spot.
If you ever find yourself in Mineral Wells, be sure to pick up some Crazy Water at the Famous Mineral Water Company, the only one of the wells still in operation. They also operate the last remaining bathhouse in town. Also, be sure to visit a little place by the name of Jitter Beans, where they sell what may well be the best coffee on the face of this earth, imported from all over the world and roasted right there in house.
Take a look through the photo gallery below to see more of what Mineral Wells looks like today!
Mineral Wells – Home of Crazy Water is the second installment in the Old Time Texas series covering historical sites in the Lone Star State.
A good while back, I discovered in an old family album two fantastic photographs of my great-grandfather with another man and a beautiful new (at the time the photo was taken, that is) automobile.
My great-grandfather, Roy Montgomery, lost his legs in an ill-fated attempt to rescue vital paperwork from his blazing place of business (which I believe was a bank). He constructed that little scooter contraption that you can see on the ground in the first photograph here as a means of transportation. In 1940, the census takers recorded Roy as fifty-five years old and still living in Bryan with wife and son, working as a registrar for Brazos County.
As I have come to find out, the car appears to be a 1929 Studebaker, and the man is none other than famed race car driver Ab Jenkins. David Abbott Jenkins got his start in driving Studebakers, and in 1935, set the twenty four hour average land speed record in his custom built Duesenberg “Mormon Meteor”, and then again in 1940. From 1940 to 1944, Jenkins served as the mayor of his home town of Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time of his death in 1956, he had established more automotive records than any other person.
These shots were most likely taken at a Studebaker dealer in Bryan, Texas, where my family resided at the time. From the story I’ve heard, Ab Jenkins was working for Studebaker in some capacity at the time. The full story behind these great photos, why they were taken, and just what event brought these two together, is probably now lost to time, but the photographs left behind ensure that the snapshot in history is preserved for all eternity.
Many of the stars of vaudeville days went on to immense success, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, and the Marx Brothers, many more were huge stars in their heyday, but today are all but forgotten, like Joe Frisco, Gallagher and Shean, and Nora Bayes. Countless others however, never made it so big, they were perhaps locally or regionally famous, and faded into obscurity once their short time in the limelight had passed. Today, we’ll dig two forgotten entertainers of the 1920s out of the annals of time and bring them back to the public eye once again. Those two are Violet Goulet and Mlle. Flo LeRoy.
Violet Goulet, as her photograph would suggest, played violin, and was billed as “violinist de luxe” for an appearance in Madera, California. She seems to have been most active, and indeed quite busy, around 1920, appearing on stage first as part of an act called the Six Serenaders, then striking out on her own as a solo act. She toured on the Pantages theater circuit, and appeared in shows at the Alhambra Theatre in El Paso and the Grand Theatre on San Antonio in 1920.
Mademoiselle Flo LeRoy, “mystic revealer,” made her mark on this world a few years after Goulet, but also seems to have had a longer career, with most information I can find on her dating to the latter part of the 1920s, the earliest reference I can being 1924 and the latest 1930. LeRoy was a clairvoyant, and her act billed her as a “mystic marvel” or “mental wizard”, revolving around her making predictions about the futures of her audience members. Her appearances would appear to have been limited to our southern states, mostly Texas, and her home was located in Dallas.
Unfortunately, I cannot find any information on the early or later lives of these two, and there’s precious little on their professional lives. If anyone else out there happens to have any information about either of them, I would be thrilled to hear it, and will update this article should any new information arise.
Digging through an old box of my family heirlooms, among the family photos, bible, and a few pieces of 1930s sheet music, I discovered this small collection of photographs of 1920s movie stars. Unfortunately, they are all badly damaged from mold, and many are heavily stained.
Fortunately, using the magic of computers, I was able to restore some of them to something resembling their original glory. With a combination of the GIMP to clean up the damage and Picasa to restore the original warm sepia tones, here they are. I must say, the hair was difficult to fix. It’s no professional fix, but I think they look pretty decent, if I’m to toot my own horn.
Interestingly, all these personalities were among those that failed to make the transition to talking pictures in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, all the ladies had outright quit acting by 1930, while Fairbanks held on a little longer, but never made as much of a hit in talkies as in the silents. Mary Miles Minter left acting in 1923 after the scandal surrounding the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Also interesting to note, all these actors, besides Minter, were among the first stars to place their hand and footprints in the forecourt at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a tradition which allegedly started when Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped in the wet cement there.
From left to right, top to bottom, you see Douglas Fairbanks, whom I actually fixed up long before the others, and the photo was in much better shape to begin with, Mary Miles Minter, Constance Talmadge (her hair was really a devil to clean up), and Norma Talmadge. If I had to guess, I’d say that all these photographs date to around 1920.