Purchasing town site lots, acreage, existing buildings and out-buildings was the first step in the rebuilding process. Moore 's Store and N&B Feed store have been acquired by the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic Foundation. Additional town lots (formerly old buildings sites) have been bought by the Foundation, together with approximately eight acres that comprise the stone-lined creeks' paths through the woods behind the old schools (see diagram).
Schrickel, Rollins and Associates (SRA) (see attached) has been retained to provide landscape architecture, civil engineering and planning assistance for the project. With SRA's input, a plan that integrates historical building restoration and recreation, pedestrian and vehicular traffic, monuments bridge/lighting design and park-layout into a Downtown Plan (see Downtown Plan) has been designed. The preliminary plans prepared by SRA (see attached) have provided the Foundation with a blueprint that its artists, landscapers and builders can begin bringing to life. The park area has been extensively but carefully trimmed of underbrush and extraneous trees. The creek banks have been cleared to open to the public the amazing stone work. City lots have been graded and pads prepared for the authentic buildings being relocated to these sites. The first building has been placed adjacent to Moore 's store (see photo) and the second will be moved-in during the 2 nd week in August, 2008. The original bank building (1911) was located a mile outside of town where it was used for some sixty years to store cattle feed. The bank building, as are most others from that era, is of “box construction” built from 1x12” saw mill lumber. And it is still covered with the sheets of tin in an embossed brick pattern as the building is depicted, in an oil painting hanging in the current First State Bank of Ben Wheeler's lobby. The present owners of that historic building have agreed to donate it to the Foundation. The plan is to add structural bracing to the old bank building and move it alongside Moore 's store on the north. (The Van Zandt County Historical Commission has approved the submission of an application that will see a historical marker placed in front of this building). Plans to move the 1911 bank building are still in discussion.
The second phase of the project is still ongoing and has and will continue to see old Ben Wheeler taking shape with the buildings relocated to Main Street (Hwy 279) and the park area reclaimed from fifty years of overgrowth, Phase III of the project will bring this historical area back to life.
Moore 's store was renovated (extensive reconstruction was required) and furnished with a collection of fixtures, display cases, merchandise and artifacts that are “period perfect”. These objects were purchased from old mercantile stores whose doors were shut around 1950. A wooden stage was constructed at the rear of the store and performances by local, regional and national musicians have taken place since it reopened in 2009.
Eventually, the 1911 bank building will serve as a museum featuring artifacts from the earliest days of the town. Enlarged photographs and interactive displays will provide visitors with an opportunity to see (and feel) detailed images of the past.
Two additional box construction buildings were moved onto the historical town site as well. Each of these buildings were renovated using materials appropriate for the 1935 era. These buildings are set up as shops selling local artists works, etc. The rent for these spaces is $12.00 per year. Given this very modest overhead, the criteria for selecting tenants was demanding. The low overhead/high tenant standards were put in place in 2009 and continue today.
Eventually, The Van Zandt County Historical Commission will get credit for securing the historical marker that will be placed in front of the bank building once moved to town. Petitions for additional historical markers include: one commemorating the Alamo Institute (already installed and in place); another highlighting the stone-lined creek embankments laid by the WPA; another for one of the few remaining and reconstructed syrup mills left, this one, is on FM 858 between Highway 64 and FM 279; and one to highlight the potato shed building.
Given the fact that the city park is adjacent to the old downtown and the two areas will be developed to complement each other, having the park area immediately adjacent to the town's wooden buildings provides important flexibility. As the historical renovated area increases in size and scope over the coming years, portions of the park area can be adopted for the expansion.
Now that plans are moving forward to transition to a sewer system, public restroom facilities can now also be considered for construction in the transition area between the historical town site and the public park. Construction materials will be chosen to fit the character of the project. The same consideration is accounted in selection of current and future benches, signage, bridges over the stone-lined creeks, lighting and so on.
As part of Phase III, facilities within the historical town site will be created to encourage musical entertainment. East Texas is well known for its grass roots music. It is an important part of the area's DNA and has proven, thus far, to bring in residents and visitors into the downtown area to shop, eat, dine and fellowship.
While Ben Wheeler has been up and running, work within stages two and three continue. The so-far renovated buildings, park areas, shops, public facilities and community gathering and entertainment has given the town a new lease on life. Work continues and decisions continue to be made regarding future development plans. By that time the emergence of historic Ben Wheeler should be stimulating development in the areas surrounding downtown. Seeing (literally) what works and what further needs can be met through the work of the Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic Foundation will be the subject of the next chapter of our plans.