NOSTALGIA HEALING WATERS

Jim Collins’ father and his magic elixir

BEFORE THE FOOD and Drug Administration was beefed up as a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, promoters of medicinal products were limited only by the extent of their own imaginations. Sufferers with old-fashioned maladies ranging from scrofula to brain fag were always on the lookout for newfangled remedies. One of the most popular ever to hit the market was Crazy Crystals, which when mixed with water were widely acclaimed for their remarkable propensity for improving the condition of the human body, mind and spirit. The concoction “put ginger into ginks and pepper into plodders,” and it helped make Carr P. Collins Sr. rich.

Collins had an insurance business in Dallas, and that helped too. But during the early Thirties, he was so busy making money off Crazy Crystals that he had to turn over the reins of the Fidelity Union Life Insurance Company to the hired hands so that he could devote full time to the Crazy empire.

Collins’ good fortune can be traced to a West Texas pioneer named James Alvis Lynch, who settled in Palo Pinto County because that’s where his team of oxen died. (One keeled over from exhaustion after dragging Lynch’s wagon across the swollen Brazos River; the other froze to death while Lynch was skinning the first one.) Lynch built a cabin in Millsap Valley, but the water from the Brazos proved to be too salty to suit his taste, so he made a deal with an itinerant well-digger to drill a well in exchange for an old run-down wagon.

The well water wasn’t much better than what the river had to offer. In fact, it had such a strong taste that Lynch was afraid it might be poisonous. But it was a lot handier than the river, which was four miles back up the trail, so he decided to take a chance on it. And lo, a remarkable thing happened. After drinking the well water for a few days, Mother Lynch, who had been laid up for years with rheumatism, was doing handsprings in the front yard. Millsap Valley became Mineral Wells, and within a few years, the city was billing itself as “the nation’s greatest health resort.”

Among the wells that sprang up in the area was one dug by Uncle Billy Wiggins. A young woman believed to be suffering from a condition that today would be described as catatonia, took to hanging out at Uncle Billy’s well, sipping mineral water and staring. Children in the area began to refer to the place as the “Crazy Woman Well.” But like Mother Lynch, the young woman took a remarkable turn for the better, and she supposedly took a new interest in life and became an asset to the community.

The Crazy Woman Well became known simply as the Crazy Well, and people came from miles around to drink from it. The enterprising owner of the property built a drinking pavilion around the well and sold shots of Crazy Water by the glass. By 1912, a modern hotel had been built on the premises (known, of course, as the Crazy Water Hotel), and by

1914, business was so good that the hotel had to be expanded.

Meanwhile, Carr Collins was learning the insurance business. His father. State Senator V.A. Collins, had steamrolled the state’s first workmen’s compensation bill through the Legislature and had “recommended” that the new State Industrial Accident Board, which was set up in Dallas, give Carr a job. On December 1, 1913, 21-year-old Carr reported to work at the Praetorian Building in Dallas as secretary of the Industrial Accident Board at an annual salary of $2,000.

By 1915, Carr Collins and a partner had their own insurance business, which by the Twenties had become a noticeable success. Over in Mineral Wells, the resort business continued to boom, and a couple of dozen smaller hostelries had joined the Crazy. But on March 25, 1925, disaster struck the city. The Crazy Hotel burned to the ground.

By this time, Carr- Collins had acquired a little extra capital and a wealth of gumption. He convinced his younger brother, Hal, to join him in a scheme to rebuild the Crazy, only bigger and better than before. On March 11, 1927, the new Crazy Hotel opened for business. The Mineral Wells Daily Index described it as a “resort dreamland, where pleasure or quietude may be had in any quantity or at any time.”

Collins’ extravagant palace consisted of seven stories with 200 guest rooms plus a roof garden for dancing. There was a marvelous drinking pavilion across from the lobby and mineral bath facilities in the basement. Mineral Wells was back in business.

But the town’s oligarchy didn’t take Collins to its bosom. He was an outsider, and he was about to get rich selling their water. The city fathers reacted immediately, commissioning hotel builder T.B. Baker to build another new hotel in Mineral Wells that would be twice as tall and twice as wide as the Crazy. The magnificent Baker Hotel opened on November 29, 1929.

In the meantime, the stock market crashed, and the Collins boys could see that they had a problem. The need for two grand hotels in Mineral Wells was questionable to begin with, but with the country in the throes of a depression, one plus one added up to doom. Carr went to the Baker people and suggested a merger, but they wouldn’t go for it.

Carr and Hal realized that as times got tougher, fewer and fewer people would have enough money to go gallivanting around to health spas. Somehow, they had to get the water to the people. They could, of course, bottle it and ship it around the country, but that was expensive. They decided to boil the water down, leaving a solid residue of crystals that the consumer could re-mix with water.

In 1930, Carr and Hal went back to Dallas and scheduled radio time on KRLD. They pulled in a couple of hillbillies off of the street and had them sing; in between songs, Hal extolled the virtues of Crazy Water Crystals.

By the Thirties, radio was taking the country by storm. Listeners were in awe of the incredible new apparatus, and they figured that if that old boy on the radio said that this was good stuff, they’d better get some before it was all gone.

In no time, the money was pouring in, and since it doesn’t cost much to boil water, most of it was clear profit. A factory was set up in Mineral Wills, equipped with huge vats to convert Crazy Water into Crazy Crystals. The crystals were packaged in attractive green and white boxes, wrapped in cellophane and loaded onto a conveyor belt that ran right up to the boxcar doors of the waiting freight trains. With a single box of crystals (which cost $1.50), a sufferer could whip up a full five gallons of Crazy Water.

In order to give the radio show a more dramatic air, Carr moved the broadcast from Dallas to the lobby of the Crazy Hotel. The show was called the “Crazy Gang,” and it aired Monday through Friday over the Texas Quality Network, which was anchored by WBAP in Fort Worth, KPRC in Houston and WOAI in San Antonio. Jim and Marian Jordan tried out for the show, but Carr thought they were a little too “country” for a class operation and wouldn’t hire them. The Jordans later established their own radio program in the mythical town of Wistful Vista and did quite well under the stage name of Fibber McGee and Molly. Meredith Willson did make the Crazy Gang team, but soon escaped to continue up the road to River City, where he gained musical immortality with The Music Man.

The Crazy Gang Show became such a hit that soon it was carried nationally by the Mutual Network. The Crazy Gang consisted of Jack Amlung and his orchestra, emcee Conrad Brady and Hal Collins (who did commercials and some uplifting editorials he called “One Man’s Opinion”). Brady and the members of the band also offered comic relief, including a blackface routine. Brady, who lives in Dallas, says that the blackface act, which was called “Sugarcane and February,” was patterned after a successful duo on Shcnvboat (a popular national radio show), who were known as “Molasses and January.”

“I played Sugarcane,” Brady says, “and Pinky Quinn, our trumpet player, was Molasses. We used to ask questions we called brain teasers, and we’d give a Morning Glory mattress to whoever wrote in with the best answer. One Friday, we asked the question ’Can an Indian become president?’ That next Monday, we had 9,000 entries. We weren’t sure what the answer was ourselves, so we invited the attorney general of the State of Oklahoma to come on the show. He talked for 15 minutes, but I still don’t know what the answer is.”

During the mid-Thirties, a woman with a dance studio in Weatherford approached Hal Collins with an offer to perform on the radio show in return for free space in the hotel for dancing classes. Collins agreed, making the rooftop ballroom available in return for the singing and whistling of “Mary Hagman, the Crazy Girl.” Mary Hagman later became known as Mary Martin and starred on Broadway in Peter Pan.

Carr Collins took a keen interest in the show and spent a lot of time at the Crazy. One day he brought his son, Jim, to meet the crew and asked them to let the young man try his hand at radio announcing. The Depression still had hold of the country, and a job was a precious commodity. The crew handed Jim a special script kept for just such an emergency-replete with unpronounceable words and wholly devoid of commas. Jim stuttered and stammered through the effort, and the crew was saved from a possible attack of nepotism. Jim, of course, later got his act together in time to run a successful race for Congress.

Crazy Water was a natural laxative and a darned good one. A.F. Weaver Jr., whose father ran the crystal plant for Carr, says that he took a whole box with him to India during World War II, and when the going got rough, the boys in the company fought over the crystals.

“It would really clean you out,” says Weaver. “Back behind the Crazy Hotel, they had a walkway up the mountain for the tourists, which they called the Thousand Steps. People would sit around the hotel drinking that water and then head up the steps to get a little exercise. They’d get about halfway up and then come flying back down to the bathroom.”

In his radio pitch, Hal Collins loved to liken Crazy Crystals to a ramrod used to clean out a rusty old shotgun, and if he had left it at that, everything might have been all right. But to add a touch of drama to the radio broadcast, Collins would let the guests of the hotel come on the radio to tell what Crazy Water had done for them. Getting a chance to talk on the radio was a rare opportunity, and the guests made the most of it. Collins would ask to hear the testimonials before the broadcast, and the competition for the most amazing medical wonders became quite intense.

Just when everything seemed rosy, Carr Collins’ nemesis appeared in the unlikely form of Rexford Tugwell, a mild-mannered professor of economics at Columbia University. Tugwell became a key figure in the inner sanctum of the Roosevelt brain trust and was rewarded with the position of Under Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. In keeping with the philosophy of the New Deal, Tugwell immediately set to work on a project designed to benefit the consuming masses: the Pure Food and Drug Act.

To drum up support for his bill, Tugwell rented a booth at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, just down the row from the booth of Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer. In the booth, Tugwell exhibited a sort of “murderer’s row” of potentially harmful medicinal products. Crazy Crystals were featured prominently in the exhibit.

As far as anyone knows, Crazy Crystals never killed anybody. There was no documentary evidence that the crystals ever cured such discomforts as red spots, nervous blood, weak back, biliousness, sterility or loss of memory, but they would sure help an old-timer get up and go in the morning. When Collins saw the fair exhibit, he was furious, and in a matter of minutes after discovering the affront, was on the phone to Texas Sens. Tom Connally and Morris Sheppard, who succeeded in getting Crazy Crystals withdrawn from the exhibit. But the damage was done; thousands had seen the exhibit before it was taken down.

Tugwell continued his war on quackery, setting up a “Chamber of Horrors” in the basement of the Agriculture Building. The focal point was a collection of testimonials for a diabetes cure accompanied with the death certificates of the writers dated just a few days after the letters. Tugwell continued his sneak attacks on Crazy Crystals as an example of a medicinal product that, although not fetal in its own right, could cause serious harm by deluding a sufferer into believing that there was no need to see a doctor.

All of this was very bad for business, but Carr Collins’ Crazy Empire remained intact. In 1938, his attentions were diverted by a new political star on the Texas horizon: W. Lee O’Daniel, the owner of a Fort Worth flour mill that produced Hillbilly Flour. Like the Collins brothers, O’Daniel had a radio show that touted his flour, and he became something of a folk hero with his program of sacred songs and sage advice. When he announced his candidacy for governor, he urged his listeners to mortgage their rocking chairs and send in their pennies to finance his campaign.

Carr Collins became enthralled with O’Dan-iel, traveling with him on his campaign. Carr’s children, along with O’Daniel’s, passed miniature barrels among the crowd labeled “Flour, not pork,” which were returned full of nickels and dimes. Carr became O’Daniel’s confidant and advisor and was called the “Cardinal Richelieu” of the O’Daniel entourage by the press.

O’Daniel won easily, and after two terms abandoned the governorship to run for the U.S. Senate. Hal Collins, who had seen O’Daniel rise from nowhere to political prominence because of the power of the airwaves, decided that he would do the same thing, using his recognition as a featured member of the Crazy Gang to pull his way up to the governor’s seat. In 1942, Hal Collins announced his candidacy for governor and advised the voting public that he and O’Daniel (who was campaigning for the Senate) would travel together on the campaign to “save on gas and rubber.”

O’Daniel squeaked through with a victory, but Collins didn’t come close in his race against Coke Stevenson. What really galled Collins was the fact that he didn’t even carry Mineral Wells; after all those years, he and Carr were still outsiders.

A few days after the election, Hal Collins announced that the Crazy Gang radio show would be moved to Dallas and that the people of Mineral Wells would just have to get along the best they could without them. In Dallas, the show lost its spontaneity and folksy charm and became just another studio hillbilly show. Before long, it was off the air.

In 1947, Carr Collins sold-some might say “gave”-the Crazy Hotel and the Crazy Water Company to the Baptist Foundation of Texas. A.F. Weaver Jr. says that the Crazy Hotel is now an old folks’ home.

“They’re trying to get the Baker on the National Register so they can afford to reopen it,” says Weaver. “They say it’ll take a good $7 million to get it going again.”

The Baptists turned over the crystal company to Weaver’s father during the late Forties, but the crystal business dried up long ago. Will Crazy Water ever be back?

“I don’t see why not,” says Weaver. “When you drop a rock in the well, it still splashes.”

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