On Fertile Ground: A Small Town in the Arkansas Delta Continues to be Reborn
Most of the small farming communities in the Delta of eastern Arkansas are now ghost towns – mere memories of what once was – and subjects for the despairing blues music that came from the area.
But nestled among the cotton fields in Mississippi County is Wilson, a town created in the late 1880s for the sharecroppers and their families who toiled the land. It has seen successes over the years brought on by both farming and visionaries who believed in the town’s potential.
Wilson is now going through yet another change. This time, the 900 residents of the small town will soon see the opening of the Hotel Louis, a 16-room hotel built in the town’s square. It’ll have the amenities of a four-star hotel in nearby Memphis, with rooftop dining, suites and other luxuries not generally associated with a town built on agriculture.
“Wilson tells a wonderful story,” says Cyndi Detty, marketing director for the City of Wilson. “The community is the heart of all this [resurgence]. The people are proud of who they are, and they are focused on providing the extra special services of hospitality.”
There’s also a decades-old grocery store that will move to a larger location in town, a general store for “the modern tastemaker,” a garden center that offers wine-tasting festivals and lunch cuisines and an architectural style that seems out of place with its English Tudor features.
“We call it the ‘hidden gem of Arkansas,’” says D.J. Tucker, manager of the Wilson Café and Tavern. “I’ve been here long enough to see us go from absolutely nothing to something you’d not expect to see if you’re not from here.
“You drive along [on U.S. Hwy 61] and you come to it,” she says. “And you go, ‘Oh, wow.’”
The town with the quaint feel of Mayberry and the amenities of New York was one of the many company towns created in the Delta during the cotton boom.
Robert E. Lee Wilson established the town in 1886, providing jobs for hundreds of laborers who worked in the area farmlands and in the timber and sawmill operations. At one point, it was the largest cotton plantation in the U.S., Detty explained.
Wilson grew up in Mississippi County and, at 15, worked as a wage laborer in the nearby community of Bassett. At 18, he traded a portion of his father’s cleared land for 2,000 acres of timberland and went into the logging business.
He built a sawmill in 1886 in what is now Wilson and created a model town with a standard of living that far exceeded normal lives in the Delta. In the 1930s, all residents of Wilson paid $1.25 to cover basic medical costs. Houses were rented at low monthly rates.
When Wilson’s son, Robert E. Lee Wilson Jr., and his new bride returned to Wilson from their honeymoon in England in 1925, all buildings in the town were retrofitted with Tudor styling because of his love of English architecture.
As agricultural mechanization increased in the 1940s, fewer laborers were needed, and the town began operating at a financial loss.
Like other towns in the area, Wilson saw residents move to larger cities in the region like Blytheville and Osceola.
Finally, in 2010, the fourth generation of the Wilson family sold its Lee Wilson and Company to the Lawrence Group, a Memphis firm headed by Gaylon Lawrence Jr. The property was sold for a reported $110 million.
“There have been a lot of positive changes that have been good for the town,” Detty says. “Gaylon purchased the farmland and took care of the town. He shared his vision. He definitely has an interest in building the community.”
Initially from the Missouri Bootheel, Lawrence now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and in Wilson. He shies from attention, Detty says, and won’t do interviews with the media.
Tucker, who has managed the Wilson Café and Tavern for the past two years, has lived in the area all her life and has seen the resurgence since Lawrence took over.
“A long time ago, Wilson was a pretty good market for farmland,” she says. “It had the cotton gin. But slowly, as time went on, the town began falling.
“Mr. Lawrence saw the potential and the history of the town. “He wanted to restore it and give people something to be proud of.”
At first, she said, some residents were resistant to change and balked at Lawrence’s ideas. Wilson is a close-knit town; townsfolk know each other and come together to help during sicknesses, deaths or other family maladies.
“Someone came in from out of town that no one knew and began changing stuff,” she says. “It took time to get comfortable with the changes.”
Mike Gunn, Wilson City Council member and owner of Gunn’s Grocery in Wilson, said his town could have survived without Lawrence’s help, but it would have been a different area.
“The difference here is that our people have always had self-pride,” Gunn explains. “There were a lot of tiny towns crumbling back then, but this town kept it up.
“Gaylon saw the potential this town had and made it more,” he says. “He’s added to it and raised it to a new level that put us on the map.”
Gunn has owned his downtown grocery store for 27 years. He will move to a larger building this summer. It’s the largest project he’s ever undertaken.
“I’m 61 years old,” he says. “I’ll have the biggest debt in my life, but I’m the most confident I’ve ever been.”
Gunn said that while considered the “owner” of Wilson, Lawrence has not forced his will on aldermens’ decisions.
“He doesn’t run us,” Gunn says. “He makes it easy to say ‘yes’ to his decisions for improvements, though. I’ve disagreed with him at times, but most of what he’s done is for the improvement of our town.”
Along with the café and new hotel, Wilson also features White’s Mercantile, a general store housed in an old gas station that offers clothing, jewelry, household items and gifts. The store was founded by Holly Williams, the daughter of Hank Williams Jr., in Nashville. In addition to shops in Wilson and Nashville, White’s Mercantile has stores in three other towns.
Across the street from the café, the Grange at Wilson Gardens is an organic produce farm built in 2014. Fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown there and lunches are served.
The Grange is comprised of multiple flower and vegetable gardens, a small orchard, three greenhouses and a chicken yard called the “Critter Corner,” says Jill Forrester, manager of The Grange.
“I consider Wilson an agritourism destination,” she says. “Between the history of the Wilson family, the charm of the town square, the incredible sunsets, the acres and acres of beautiful cotton and the ongoing reinvestments made by the Lawrence family, it’s truly a magical place to visit, work and reside.”
She says the town draws many because of its unique offerings and that its people also make Wilson a good place.
“The residents are indeed the fundamental reason we continue to thrive,” she says. “[Wilson] is one of the most hospitable and welcoming places someone could ever wish to visit, work or live.”
The small town also offers a spa, floral classes and garden club meetings.
Food from the Wilson Gardens is also served at the Delta School – an educational institution designed to help students with tailored, progressively-tailored learning – just south of the downtown.
The town boasts the smallest state park in Arkansas at the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park that includes a nationally renowned collection of artifacts. The pieces interpret the lifestyles of the Nodena culture, a thriving civilization that farmed in the area.
Even the downtown square is reflective of Wilson’s history. In addition to the Tudor-style architecture, most of the buildings are painted a British green. There are the small town businesses expected in a town square – a post office, a supermarket, bank, pharmacy and a soda fountain.
Cottonwoods surround a large grassy pavilion at the front of the square where a stone monument sits in honor of Robert E. Lee Wilson. It’s a startling discovery for travelers along U.S. 61, known as the “Blues Highway.” Motorists drive through the endless flat cotton fields of eastern Arkansas before seeing a lush green oasis on the western side of the highway that is Wilson.
The town is featured in a song by John Oates, one of the members of Hall & Oates, a popular duo from the 1970s and 1980s.
Oates was invited to play a private show in Wilson. He said later in interviews, he played at an old church in the middle of cotton fields. After the show, Oates wandered out into the cotton patch and saw the Mississippi River nearby.
“This is like a whistle stop on this great tradition of American music that came up from the Deep South through the Delta…” he said in an interview with Ultimateclassicrock.com.
The video for his song “Arkansas,” the title track of his solo album by the same name released in 2018, was shot in Wilson and features several landmark locations from the town.
“When the sun starts rising, hitting 90 before the clock strikes noon, don’t you know the days’ and nights’ dreams drive slowly by,” Oates sings in “Arkansas.”
“Another Delta dawn hope worth waiting on, where that old man river flows there the snow white cotton fields of Arkansas.”
Detty says, “It’s a wonderful town,” “There’s been a lot of positive changes for the good of the town these past two years. The new hotel is interesting the people the most lately. It’s a reflection of the community and its hospitality.”