The Rust Belt is spreading across America as more and more manufacturing plants move overseas. When I was laid off at a semiconductor plant in 2003 the final email I received (accidentally released too soon; see Broken Highways) described why this layoff occurred. I was struck by the emotion of the email which was blunt, but optimistic about the future of the company with an edge of excitement. To paraphrase the email, it announced that the company was building 26 new state of the art manufacturing plants in China. 26!!! Why would anyone in America be excited by that? The plant has closed its doors and sits empty, most likely to never reopen.
There aren’t too many reasons to visit Mineral Wells, Texas. This little community of 16,000 remains quietly nestled in the hills of Palo Pinto County, far removed from any major interstate or metropolitan area. 45 miles west of Fort Worth, I never had good cause to pass through here and assumed that Mineral Wells was just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, small town. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Travelling west on highway 180 from Weatherford, we were rushing to make a delivery on the southside of Mineral Wells. The day was hot and we were driving straight into the late afternoon sun. All I wanted was to take care of business and head back home. Passing through miles and miles of empty green pastures and rolling hills, I was beginning to think we would never reach our destination. . Mesas loomed large in the distance. There was no sign of a small town for a good stretch of highway until we topped a hill and saw a massive structure standing tall in the distance.
At first I thought it might be a county hospital until we reached the outskirts of town and were greeted with the reality that this was not a hospital at all but instead a grandiose hotel reeking of 1920’s opulence. The first thought that went screaming through my head was, this doesn’t belong here! Forced to drive past this monument of antiquity, we had to stop and investigate.
14 stories tall, the hotel dominates downtown Mineral Wells, casting a wide shadow over the remainder of the city. It’s something one would expect to find in New York, Chicago, or New Orleans. It’s the last thing I expected to see in downtown Mineral Wells. It seems so out of place here in the remote Texas hill country. The hotel shouldn’t be here yet here it is, whispering secrets about the past to anyone who will listen.
Parking at the hotel’s front entrance I hopped out of the truck and immediately began taking photos. With bottom floor windows boarded up , glass broken out from nearly every window on the higher floors, and exterior withering in decay from years of neglect, only ghosts remain at this hotel. I had to learn more about this anomaly, so oversized for such a small town, that I went back to the truck, booted up the laptop, and googled Mineral Wells. The Baker Hotel popped up number 3 in the search engine. Navigating to http://bakerhotel.us ,I was introduced to a wealth of historical information and timeless photos of the hotel in its heyday.
Lets begin with the city itself. Mineral Wells derived its name from the underground waters found in local wells that were widely believed to have healing properties. Residents, well aware of the tourism dollars that the bath houses of Hot Springs, Arkansas brought in each year, wanted to capitalize on that idea and bring a resort to their little town. So they convinced T.B. Baker of the highly successful Baker Hotel chain to build just such a place for the residents of Mineral Wells. Baker hired Wyatt C. Hendrick to construct a massive Spanish Revival commercial high-rise, the first skyscraper ever built outside a major metropolitan area and on Nov. 9, 1929, The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells opened its doors for the first time.
Cattle barons, oil tycoons, Hollywood celebrities, generals, and political figures flocked to the Baker Hotel in great numbers. Big band orchestras and cabaret acts performed in the 14th floor ballrooms on weekends while organizations held conventions in the decadent conference rooms during the week. Guy Lombardo, Mary Martin, Lawrence Welk, and Paul Whitman were booked regularly to perform while celebrities like Lucille Ball, Pat Boone, Jack Dempsy, Marlene Deitrich, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Samuel Goldwyn, Jean Harlow, Helen Keller, Dorathy Lamour, Will Rodgers, and Bonnie & Clyde were frequent guests.
At the peak of The Baker Hotel’s popularity in the 1940’s, coinciding with the opening of Fort Wolters military base, the town of Mineral Wells mushroomed from 6,000 to 30,000 residents and the hotel was at the center of the social scene.
In a basement beneath the outdoor pool a bottling plant was erected, shipping the healing waters across the globe. There was a gymnasium, Olympic sized swimming pool, beauty salon, coffee shop, bowling alley, barber shop, a Grey Hound Bus terminal, and restaurants located on the grounds of the hotel.
T. B. Baker passed control of the hotel to his nephew, Earl, who vowed to close the doors of the grand hotel when he turned 70. In April, 1963, Earl Baker kept his word and closed the doors of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Not only did this action ruin the social life of the local denizens but it also had a devastating effect on the economy. In 1965 city leaders managed to reopen the Baker, paying Earl Baker each month for the right to do so. On Dec. 3, 1967, while visiting the hotel, Earl collapsed from a massive heart attack and died later that day at a local hospital. His long time mistress, Virginia Brown, had a suite of rooms on the 7th floor and is reported to have leapt to her death from the top of the building. Legend says she still roams the empty halls of the Baker, her presence announced by the aroma of the perfume she once wore.
Many people consider the hotel to be haunted, given that thousands of gravely ill guests spent time at the Baker in hopes that the healing waters would provide the cure they needed. This was a last-ditch act of desperation after modern medicines had failed. There appears to be no record of how many spent their final night in the hotel but most death estimates are high. Teams of ghost hunters have spent time in the building and report unusually high instances of paranormal activity.
Despite the city leaders efforts to reestablish the Baker as a major resort the hotel was on it’s death bed and could not be resuscitated. Advancements in medical procedures and treatments had eliminated the need for the healing waters of Mineral Wells. To make matters worse, Fort Wolters had closed and organizations found newer, trendier hotels in places like Las Vegas to hold their conventions. The Grand Old Lady of Mineral Wells closed her doors forever in 1972.
Out of time and seemingly out-of-place the Baker Hotel looms over all other buildings in Mineral Wells as a reminder of a bygone era that brought fame and fortune to a sleepy little town nestled in the Texas hill country. Rumors of a restoration project are spread by the locals and a group of investors may be serious about reviving the Baker Hotel. Estimates are that it will cost 50 – 64M to restore the resort to its original glory (cost 1.2M to build in 1929). Though doubtful that her glorious past can ever be reclaimed, ghosts still whisper in the shadows of her presence and residual energy continues to vibrate from her bricks, haunting visitors who come here to see the Grand Old Lady of Mineral Wells.