That ‘funny-tasting’ water provides a colorful history for revitalized Mineral Wells.
Some time ago, a road trip routed my husband and me through downtown Mineral Wells. For a few minutes, we slowed to ogle quaint storefronts and circled a 1920s high-rise, accented with brick arcades, terracotta-tiled roofs and a domed tower.
Though still grand, its former glory had given way to broken windows and boarded-up doors. How sad, we thought. We kept going.
Later, I Googled Mineral Wells, which I’d heard of but knew little about. I turned up some intriguing history about the town’s “crazy” waters, once believed to have healing powers; plus, botanical gardens, a fossil park and a state park were right up my alley.
Road trip, here we come! This time, we’d stop and stay in Mineral Wells.
On our way, we learn about that colorful history. In 1877, James A. Lynch and his family settled in a valley where Mineral Wells now lies. Later, they had a well dug on their land, but the water tasted awful. No one died from drinking it, though. In fact, Lynch and his wife, both plagued with rheumatism, noted that they felt remarkably better after drinking from the well.
News got around. Neighbors showed up. They paid to drink the mineral-rich water. Strangers did, too. Hundreds of them.
In 1881, Lynch laid out Mineral Wells and appointed himself mayor. People eager to make money dug their own wells. According to local lore, a demented woman drank regularly from one well and was cured. Thereafter, folks called it the Crazy Well.
Thousands of people wracked with ailments traveled to Mineral Wells to soak in the water or to drink branded versions such as Crazy Water, which has been marketed since 1904 by the Famous Mineral Water Company. Resort spas, bath houses, boarding houses and casinos sprang up. Swanky hotels — notably the Crazy Water Hotel and high-rise Baker Hotel — attracted Judy Garland, Clark Gable and other celebrities.
The town boomed into the 1930s. Then modern medicine became the go-to health remedy; federal regulations clamped down on unproven curatives.
As health resorts lost their appeal, fewer visitors traveled to Mineral Wells. Many businesses gave up. In the 1970s, the town struggled more after a nearby military base closed for good. So did the Baker Hotel, its 14 floors eventually becoming a magnet for vandals and ghost hunters.
“Look,” I call out to James, pointing at the Baker when we pulled into downtown. “The windows aren’t broken anymore!” The landmark’s noticeable repairs hint at the restoration work underway in Mineral Wells.
Another revitalization example is the huge green sign spanning West Hubbard Street (U.S. 180): “Welcome to Mineral Wells — Home of Crazy.” It’s a replica of one that greeted travelers from 1933 to 1958. Local efforts raised $125,000 for the new LED-lit metal banner, erected in March 2020.
The original Crazy sign is thought to have referred to the Crazy Drug Co., which then was housed in the Crazy Water Hotel. The pharmacy’s long gone, but both the Crazy Water and the Baker are coming back to life.
Cody Jordan, a native who’s among many investors committed to restoring the historic hotels, toured us around the seven-story Crazy Water, rebuilt in 1927 after a fire. Beneath lofty skylights, we stand in the historic pavilion, where guests ordered Crazy Water drinks from the original tiled bar. By year’s end, they will again.
“This will be a multi-use complex called the Crazy Water Plaza,” Jordan tells us. “It’ll have retail, restaurant and office space, hospitality rooms, guest rooms and apartments.”
We take the elevator up to the seventh floor, where we ooh and aah at the completed ballroom and admire views of the Baker and surrounding town.
An hour later, we put on hard hats for a tour of the 1929 Baker, a $65 million restoration project targeted to finish in 2024. In a dimly lit room, general partner Mark Rawlings shows us hundreds of salvaged light fixtures arranged on wooden shelves. Another room holds pedestal sinks numbered and removed from the original 450 guest rooms.
“We harvest everything we can,” he explains. “I’m crazy meticulous about everything being organized and clean.”
Floor by floor, Rawlings leads us up narrow concrete stairs (no working elevator yet) to see planned spa and fitness areas, a few of the future 167 guest rooms, the 12th-floor “Cloud Room” ballroom with its 270-degree views and the Baker Suite, occupied by hotel magnate T.B. Baker when he visited. Rawlings leads us up an iron spiral staircase to the domed tower, the Baker’s highest vantage point, with the best views of all.
We also love our views from the upstairs porch at Magpie Inn. The Queen Anne-style home was built in 1910 as a boarding house. Owners Magen and Jeremy Desnoyers offer five upstairs rooms that include breakfast prepared in their homey kitchen.
Magen’s hearty meals fortify us for our outdoor explorations. We begin at Lake Mineral Wells State Park, where assistant superintendent David Owens takes us on a short hike to see an amazing geological formation. Along the wooded trail, we glimpse Lake Mineral Wells. Below us, the ground drops off into a rock canyon.
We pause at a rustic sandstone overlook, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, to take in lake views. Then we follow Owens down a steep stone staircase, another CCC marvel, to reach the rocky floor of Penitentiary Hollow. On both sides of us, sheer sandstone walls, frequented by registered rock climbers, rise 35 feet high.
Owens points out a row of four huge trees. Their gnarly roots snake into the canyon floor; skyward, their canopies soar above the canyon’s rim.
“Those cedar elms are at least 250 years old,” he notes. “The hollow also has some species that are rare to our area, like shagbark hickory. This is a real special place.”
So are nearby Clark Gardens, a manicured oasis of blooms, walkways, woods and water features. There’s even a “Clark Station” house, where three model trains chug along indoor and outdoor tracks. Assistant director Ansley McEntire joins us as we stroll most of the 35 gardens, with more than 500 different shrubs, trees, perennials and annuals.
“Our Historic Tree Trail has 88 direct descendants of historic trees,” McEntire says. “Our ‘moon’ sycamore is descended from a sycamore that germinated from seeds that flew aboard the 1971 Apollo 14 voyage to the moon.”
Among the daylilies, we meet founder Max Clark, on his knees pulling Johnson grass with his dog, Charlie. Now 93, Clark started his first garden in 1972 with his wife, Millie. One green project led to another. And another. In 2000, they established a nonprofit organization and opened their gardens for public tours. Millie, who passed in 2012, is buried on the grounds within sight of a tiered fountain.
North of town, we meet Pat Bazzell at the Western Heritage Park, a former city park that’s now run by the nonprofit Texas Frontier Trails.
“Our hiking trail has signs that tell the history of our area’s western heritage,” she says. “We also have 4½ miles of mountain bike trails that people love.”
On our own, we briefly walk the dirt hiking trail to an arched footbridge over Pollard Creek. The sandstone bridge along with the park’s entrance portals and stone stairs were also built by the CCC.
After supper one evening, we squeeze in a little time for the Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway. The multi-use trail, which links Mineral Wells to Weatherford, follows the old railroad route that more a century ago carried train passengers eager to “take the waters.” From Mineral Wells, the first 2 miles of trailway are paved; crushed limestone covers the remaining 18 miles.
Starting from the Mineral Wells Trailhead, we check out a vintage caboose and interpretive signs, then head east on the trail, passing the former railroad depot, warehouses, residential yards and a grassy athletic field behind an elementary school.
Possum Kingdom Lake (with its own state park) is always a great side trip from Mineral Wells. Just over an hour away, you’ll find 300 miles of shoreline, great fishing, cabins and water sports. The lake is home to the iconic Hell’s Gate formation, a pair of towering cliffs.
We have something else in mind for our last morning. We drive six miles west of town to Mineral Wells Fossil Park. Equipped with hand shovels and buckets, James and I walk into the ravine-pocked crater, joined by Rose Jordan with the Chamber of Commerce.
“People come here from all over the country to search for fossils,” she says. “You can keep anything you find — oh, look! My first sponge!”
Jordan holds out a small brown fossil.
Squatting, I search the ground. My treasure hunt turns up mostly fan-shaped shells and crinoids, sea lily stalks. Some have star centers; others have five sides. More than 300 million years old? The thought intrigues me.
So does Mineral Wells. One thing’s for sure — we’ll be stopping and staying again soon.
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