Story and Photography by KAREN PULFER FOCHT
Something special is happening in a tiny Arkansas town with “big ambition. They believe if they build it, you will come.
Rising out of the Mississippi River plain along Highway 61 in the Arkansas Delta, Wilson is a most unlikely oasis. It’s a field of dreams where people enjoy the simple things in life, in a sophisticated way.
Everyone is talking about Wilson. Why Wilson?
The once-dying Delta town is now being resurrected. Wilson, official population 900, is carefully being transformed into an arts, cultural, and educational hub, a resort town and an agri-tourism destination in the American South.
Slide on over to the Great River Road and mosey on up into Mississippi County and see for yourself. Let your mind wander as you pass the sunflower fields, shabby shacks and gates to forgotten places from once upon a time.
In this Cinderella story, dreams are coming alive through the vision of businessman Gaylon Lawrence Jr., an agriculture magnate who bought thousands of acres from Lee Wilson & Co. in 2010 to enhance his agri-based empire.
The history of the town captivated Lawrence.
Wilson was founded by Robert E. Lee Wilson as a company town in 1886 as part of his logging operation. When the timber was gone, the town prospered after he cleared the fertile land to grow cotton. Wilson became the head of a cotton empire. The company had its own currency, doctors, car repair shop, and housing, even dry cleaners for residents.
Lawrence and his wife Lisa fell in love with Wilson and they want you to as well. They are creating something extraordinary out of something very ordinary, located out in the middle of nowhere.
His roots run deep in the region.
As a young boy, a bit further up the road, Lawrence farmed alongside his father, the late Gaylon Lawrence Sr., near the Bootheel of Missouri.
Now, Lawrence comes back to town often, keeping a close relationship with it and the folks that have been entrusted to him. He frequently flies into Wilson on his private plane from his home in Nashville, his Napa vineyard, or his orchard in Florida.
“Wilson is a Delta town with a storied past and exciting future. There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy in the town as we look to make Wilson a destination for travelers as well as a place that people want to relocate to and live a healthy, community-oriented lifestyle they cannot get anywhere else,” said Lawrence.
Just in time for lunch, Lawrence pulls up a chair with friends at the Wilson Café. He enjoys the steak. His meal is prepared by award-winning chef Roberto Barth, formerly Lawrence’s private chef. Lawrence liked his food so much that now Barth has become head chef at the café. It is open seven days a week and recently extended the hours to include a late-evening happy hour.
Norbert Mede, a wine aficionado and hospitality industry veteran was recruited by Lawrence. He coaxed Mede off his sailboat in Mendocino, in Northern California wine country, to come and craft the Wilson experience.
As Mede concentrates on the aesthetics and town planning for the residents, he will also develop a sustainable luxury visitor experience.
“We want to increase the population and have people live where they work,” says Mede.
“If we do it right, Wilson will thrive long into the future,” Mede says. “Lawrence has invested a considerable amount to make this vision come true. There is more than just money behind what he is trying to accomplish. There is leadership, direction, and persistence.” He and his wife Lisa are both hands-on. “They are a great team.”
They want to catch your eye, pique your interest and then show you some southern hospitality. They want you to come on into their town and to stay awhile.
If this modest little Tudor-style boutique town didn’t stand out so much, there’s a good chance you might just miss it while driving through the cotton fields on U.S. 61.
Just forty-five minutes away from Memphis, Wilson has the café, a grocery, pharmacy, bank, museum, library, private school and a couple of upscale shops.
The town of Wilson is just a few miles from the Mississippi River. Eastern Arkansas is known for its world-class duck hunting because it’s on the Mississippi Flyway, which is a major migration corridor for waterfowl. Local guided hunts are being planned for this year’s hunting season.
Tom Beckbe, an exclusive men’s sporting apparel store on the town square, opened its first and only retail store here. They carry beautiful fine leather goods and classic American hunting items and apparel.
A walk through the park and across the Great River Road is White’s Mercantile, a fun general store with a southern flavor and a little something for everyone. Singer-songwriter Holly Williams, daughter of country legend Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams Sr. wanted to create a nostalgic shopping experience when she came up with the idea for the store.
A lovely local flower farmer, Jill Forrester, rules the roost at the Wilson Farmers Market in the Grange. The Grange is an agricultural-based meeting hall on the other side of the BNSF railroad track that cuts through town. Jill can frequently be found farming in a skirt, her hair braided underneath a worn straw hat, cutting the perfect seasonal flower bouquets for the farmers market, which is open each Wednesday.
Jill has had a life-long love affair with flowers. She is currently offering flower-arranging classes. Before class she invites the guests to first meander through the hundreds of blossoms dotting the field outside of the Grange. She is planning future “you pick” flower events.
Into the fall there will be a pumpkin patch and a turkey trot run on Thanksgiving. Jill will offer a Christmas wreath-making class. There will also be a brunch with Santa before the holiday.
Chickens can be found scratching around behind the fields of flowers. The fresh eggs, food and flowers grown at the Grange will be used in a six-course dinner with thematic décor, to be held once a month through the end of the year.
A romantic farm to table dinner, serving as many as fifty people, will be served under the October 2nd Harvest moon; a “Be Thankful” dinner will be served in November and “Christmas in Europe” will be the theme of a progressive dinner during the holidays.
Each week, Mede will be showing off his skills with wine tastings and various pop-up wine-related events, occasionally featuring wines from Heitz Wine Cellars, one of Napa Valley’s top wineries, owned by Lawrence.
For those who want to spend the night, a boutique hotel is being constructed with plans to open in spring of 2021. For now, a few Airbnbs are listed on the Wilson website.
If you are looking to relax and be nurtured, a spa is also in the works. Until then, you can find an aesthetician ready to pamper your skin upstairs in the Grange.
As it expands, the town will build a botanical garden, host more weddings, cooking classes and lectures.
The pandemic has made planning music events difficult. Post COVID-19, the idea is to have a continuous music series with several major concerts a year. An old local theater on the square is being restored to host smaller concerts and movies. It will also become a venue for other entertainment and events.
This area is home to a significant Native American archeological site. The Hampson Archeological Museum is in Downtown Wilson. Many artifacts found in the area are on display.
For those who want to explore the countryside the childhood home of Johnny Cash is just fourteen miles from here in Dyess and is open for tours.
Just south of town is a concrete gate, the only vestige of a German POW (prisoner of war) camp, where prisoners were paid eighty cents an hour as farm laborers during World War II.
The Wilson agricultural story was revolutionary; “Boss Lee” had a unique vision for this land, as does Lawrence.
“When we look at where Wilson is going, we need to look a bit to the past and what made Wilson the place to be back then. Wilson is innovative, authentic and vibrant. We are looking to make Wilson an example of how you can revive and enhance a small Delta town, to be cutting edge and grow when so many small towns are in decline. Wilson’s future is about sustained commitment and a quality of life” said Lawrence.
Future plans are unfolding daily for this budding boondocks. A haven is emerging. People from all walks of life have come together to imagine the endless possibilities: to give a small rural Arkansas community hope—to create a retreat out of what was once swampland. They all have one thing in common—they all share the dream.
4 thoughts on “A Modern Day Resurrection”
Grew up and graduated high school in this little place. Such a great place to grow up in the 50’s & 60’s. I am not able to visit back ‘home’ as much as I would like to but it is still and always will be home.
The Courier News in Blytheville (Mississippi County) in the late ’60s did an expose’ on the Wilson operation and terrible treatment of strawberry pickers. Robert E. Lee Wilson III hated the paper from that time onward. I started my journalism career under the great Hank Haines, publisher and editor of the Courier News and am to this day grateful to be grounded in reporting the truth.
Let me reply to myself. In reviewing Ms. Focht’s portfolio, I realize that she is a journalist and photojournalist of of considerable depth in her empathy with humanity. Jack Weatherly
Very interesting. Thank you. There are always many perspectives to every story. This story was intended to be a travel peice. I think some wonderful things will be happening over in Wilson that will be great for the entire area. Mr. Lawrence is looking to create good opportunities for the people of Wilson through smart growth. Thank you for taking the time to comment.