Welcome to Wilson, Arkansas: Company Town to Collaborative Sustainability
You don’t have to be from Wilson, Arkansas to feel a tremendous pride as you wander through this Southern small town. There is a peaceful excitement in the air and everywhere you look you can see the care and ambition the residents of this farming town are putting into their community today with a respect for its place in the history of the Mississippi Delta.
HISTORIC COTTON GIN
Located along Scenic Highway 61, the town is surrounded by farmland. Originating in 1886 as a Company Town for Robert E. Lee Wilson (“Boss Lee”) and his logging and sawmill operation, the village came soon after as he began developing the land for farming and building a cotton empire that became one of the largest in the area. The Arkansas Delta was poverty-stricken at this time, so the Company became the primary employer and used sharecropper and tenant farmers to farm the vast and fertile land around the town.
The Wilson Company not only owned and ran the farming operations, but also the cotton gin, bank, school, store, and all types of service jobs needed to keep the village running such as auto repair, laundry, and construction. Residents rented homes from the Company and could buy medical care from the company for their family at a small price per year, which was a rarity in this region where there was little access to doctors.
The town’s buildings are almost all in a Tudor style further adding to its uniqueness. Boss Lee’s son Wilson, Jr. and his wife implemented this style in 1925, after visiting England on their honeymoon. All new buildings were built in this style and older buildings were renovated to match.
Wilson incorporated in 1959 which gave the town access to taxes previously unavailable as a company entity. The houses the residents had been renting were sold to them and many of the businesses began to be owned by other residents and companies. However, much of the town and the farming operations were still owned by the Wilson family until 2010.
BANK IN TOWN SQUARE - ONE OF THE ORIGINAL TUDOR STYLE BUILDING
Farming began to change as technology advanced which required fewer employees. Wilson began to see a population decrease as residents went to other cities to seek jobs. In 2010 The Lawrence Group purchased Lee Wilson & Company and in 2012 the Tudor buildings in the Town Square were restored including the Wilson Cafe. The town established an independent school and began to concentrate on new business, including tourism, and strategies for sustainable growth.
Wilson’s ambition is:
“To create a nurturing, inclusive and inspiring community based on the simple values of honesty, authenticity and hard work.”
They hope to be an example of change in the Mississippi Delta with a spirit of collaboration and vision for the future. They’re well on their way.
When visiting Wilson, Arkansas be sure to check out:
WILSON CAFE - ONE OF THE ORIGINAL TUDOR STYLE BUILDINGS
Wilson Cafe (formerly Wilson Tavern) has been central in the Town Square off and on for almost 120 years. Well-known Memphis Chefs Joe Cartwright and Shari’ Haley opened the Wilson Cafe in December 2013. Their Southern menu is sourced locally with many of the veggies coming straight from the beautiful Wilson Gardens right across the street. The Cafe has been recently renovated and has a warm, vintage, yet modern look. The service is friendly, the food delicious, and their desserts are not to be missed. We were there on Mother’s Day and it seemed like the whole community was there dressed in their Sunday finest.
WHITE'S MERCANTILE IN TOWN SQUARE
Described as a “general store for the modern-day tastemaker,” White’s Mercantile opened in Wilson, Arkansas in 2017 and is the only location outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Owned and curated by owner and singer/songwriter, Holly Williams, the store is a collection of home decor, books, cards, jewelry, and so much more.
Wilson Gardens and The Grange at Wilson Gardens
Wilson Gardens produces local, sustainably-grown vegetables and food. They have more than 200 acres of farm and pasture in Wilson, Arkansas and visitors can see their beautiful gardens, store, or book an event at The Grange at Wilson Gardens. The gardens were started as a sustainable way to help the residents of Wilson live more healthy lives but has developed into a destination of its own. Wilson Gardens has developed initiatives like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and a Learning Lab for both children and adults. Their hope is to nurture the connection between people, food and the land.
Wilson Music Series
With its location on the Blues Highway, the Great River Road, and Americana Music Triangle, Wilson has a long history with music and fosters this tradition with the quarterly Wilson Music Series. The event features local, regional and national artists in venues around town.