‘Crazy’ plans in Mineral Wells could bring health-seeking tourists to Texas
The Dallas Morning News (TNS) November 15, 2023
Movers and shakers in the small Texas town of Mineral Wells 80 miles west of Dallas are ready for redemption. In a few years, this sleepy town known for its proximity to Possum Kingdom Lake could become a renewed Texas tourism destination. And, maybe, Mineral Wells can become a boomtown once again.
Ask anybody about Mineral Wells’ history, and it starts in the late 1870s. Underground.
“It’s really all about the water,” said Cynthia Nelson, an Austin transplant who moved to Mineral Wells to be the general manager of the newly reinvented Crazy Water Hotel.
“People came from far and wide. For the water,” said Carol Elder, who grew up in Mineral Wells. She vowed never to move back, then moved back because she wanted to raise her kids in a small town. Carol Elder and her husband, Scott, purchased the only remaining mineral water company in the town — before they’d even tasted the water.
“Everybody was coming here for the water,” said Rose Jordan, director of tourism for the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB. She’s speaking of the late 1800s, when families settled on a minor fault line in the Palo Pinto Mountains. Think rugged plateaus, not ski slopes.
Settlers drilled a well and found “pockets of yummy mineral water underneath the city,” Elder said. It was thought to have healing properties, and families would travel to this welcoming Texas town to stay for an entire season, drinking the water that sometimes cost a nickel a cup.
Lyndon B. Johnson, before he was president, visited Mineral Wells. So did the Three Stooges, actor Clark Gable, Judy Garland and President Dwight Eisenhower. The city had thousands of hotel rooms and dozens of hotels, Jordan said, all to house the travelers visiting its spas and drinking its naturally-occurring minerals and vitamins.
“It was our liquid gold,” Jordan said. “It was our everything.”
It’s hard to picture it today, now that Mineral Wells’ population is a slim 17,000 people, “a fraction of what it used to be,” Jordan said. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration told businessowners in Mineral Wells that they couldn’t advertise the health benefits of their water — even though many touted its ability to cure headaches, body aches and even more serious ailments. Soon, aspirin was used as a common pain reliever, replacing more holistic methods. In 1973, nearby military base Fort Wolters, a primary training center for the Vietnam War, especially for helicopter pilots, was decommissioned. Mineral Wells’ boom was a bust.
Since then, it has remained a small town — “not quite thriving, more just existing,” Elder said.
But that’s about to change. In summer 2023, Mineral Wells was named the Wellness Capital of Texas in a bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in the 88th Legislature of the State of Texas. The Crazy, a hotel that recently finished a $22 million renovation, is back open and housing travelers. The city’s famous Baker Hotel, vacant since 1972, is expected to reopen next, in 2026.
There’s been a multi-generational rivalry between the two hotels, residents of Mineral Wells say. That started from the beginning, when the Crazy Water Hotel opened in the early 1900s and offered an extended-stay spot for travelers to take mineral water baths. It burned down in 1925 and reopened in 1927. Entrepreneur T.B. Baker decided he’d build a hotel down the street, twice as tall, with twice the capacity. The Baker opened in 1929.
Fast-forward to today, and Elder said she’s heard her neighbors say for years: “When the Baker is redone, Mineral Wells is going to be saved.”
Local couple Randy and Misty Nix came up with a different plan, “to save ourselves first,” as Elder puts it. The Baker Hotel has three main investors and a plan for at least a $76 million renovation. It’s the talk of the town. The smaller Crazy Hotel has a different model, with 88 investors, all who live in Palo Pinto County or own property there.
The Crazy is what’s bringing the town together, many have said.
“You have 88 people who are putting their money where their mouth is and reinvesting in their community,” Elder said. She and Scott are among the 88 investors. “It was really the energy that was needed, for people to be like, ‘I love this little town.’”
She’s seen a noticeable shift in the past few years.
“That sense of pride is really building,” she said.
Are they Crazy?
What’s with the name? As the story goes, in the late 1800s, a woman with a history of mental illness sat and drank water by a well in Mineral Wells. One day, “she was not so crazy anymore,” Elder said.
Starting in 1904, pharmacist Ed Dismuke started selling the water, as did nearly two-dozen other entrepreneurs. Dismuke was convinced that drinking Mineral Wells’ water cured his stomach disease.
In 1999, the Elders bought the Famous Mineral Water Company, which bottles Crazy Water, “basically, for heritage tourism,” Elder said. She didn’t know anything about Famous Mineral Water, despite being raised in Mineral Wells. The company in 1999 had a total of about $30 in sales per day.
“At that point, nobody drank still mineral water,” she said.
They bought it at just the right time. Crazy Water now bottles an H-E-B-branded sparkling mineral water called 1877, which is becoming a rival to Topo Chico. Elder was once the sole full-time employee, and now Famous has over 50 full-time workers. Crazy Water has also been used by chefs who can taste the difference between it and other bottled water. At Tatsu, a tiny omakase restaurant in Dallas where dinner costs $185 per person, chef Tatsuya Sekiguchi uses only Crazy Water No. 2 to boil his sushi rice.
Many in Mineral Wells use the word “crazy” to describe the town. The Elder family bought a flailing water company at just the right time. The Nix family convinced all their neighbors to put their money into the more-than-100-year-old Crazy Hotel. In the basement of that hotel, a spa is expected to open in 2024, offering massages, facials and the mineral-soak baths that put this town on the map.
“A lot of people pass through Mineral Wells. And now there’s a reason to stop,” said David Bull, executive chef of the restaurant.
Mineral Wells’ finest restaurant
The most upscale restaurant in Mineral Wells has been open for about two weeks.
Executive chef Bull moved his family from Austin to Mineral Wells to open Second Bar + Kitchen, a farm-focused restaurant in the lobby of the Crazy Hotel. Bull previously worked at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas for chef Dean Fearing before he moved south to join a team that reopened the landmark Driskill Hotel in Austin.
The Crazy is “the opportunity to revitalize a historical spot,” Bull said. “There’s not anything quite like this.”
Nelson, the GM of the hotel, has a similar story. “You ever heard of someone having a calling? I was called [to Mineral Wells],” she said. And even though the rivalry might still exist between the Crazy and the Baker hotels, they will be managed by the same company. Nelson says the hotels will be more successful if they work together, and she will eventually work at both hotels.
She said of her new job in Mineral Wells, a 290-step walk from home to office, “I have to do this.”
Lunch or dinner at Second Bar + Kitchen could start with a $5 Wellness Shot, which was added to the menu in honor of the town’s wellness past. The non-alcoholic shot has pineapple and orange juices, rosemary, agave, cilantro and Fire Cider, an apple cider vinegar made from Mineral Wells company Rocky Hill Farms. It’s a blast of vinegar, and it’ll wake you up.
The local companies where Bull buys mushrooms, cheese, flour, polenta, stone-ground oats, pies and more are listed on the front of the menu, a reminder that the community supports itself. And that everybody seems to know everybody.
Bull’s restaurant is a buzzy subject in Mineral Wells right now, partly because it’s the finest place for dinner with friends or a date. But also, Bull’s vegetable-forward menu matches Mineral Wells’ healthy approach that one-woman-tourism-department Jordan wants consumers to rediscover. She said the target tourist — a “wellness traveler” who’s the present-day version of the people who visited Mineral Wells 150 years ago — seeks healthy food and experiences in nature.
Mineral Wells has the nature part covered, with “one of the most scenic stretches of the Brazos River” nearby, Jordan said. But healthy food? “That’s something we really need to grow into,” Jordan said.
When she saw Second Bar + Kitchen’s menu, she said, “I had tears in my eyes. It is exactly what we need.”