Tourism officials from across the state gathered in the Mississippi County town of Wilson (population 903) on Nov. 15 for the dedication of the building that now houses the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park. If Robert E. Lee Wilson and Dr. James Hampson were still around, they would be amazed by what's happening around the Wilson town square these days.
R.E.L. Wilson was born in Mississippi County in 1865. He was 7 when his father died and his mother moved him to Memphis. When he was 13, a yellow fever epidemic took his mother's life. Wilson was then raised by an uncle and became interested in land surveying. He returned to Arkansas when he was 15 and started working on a farm near Bassett.
"He began farming the following year on land left to him by his father," Cindy Grisham writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Wilson realized the value in the hardwood forests that covered the Delta at that time and, after three years of farming, purchased a sawmill. In order to have timber for the mill, he traded a portion of his cleared land for 2,100 acres of timberland in Mississippi County. He continued farming as well, working more of the land that his father had left him. In 1885, Wilson and his new father-in-law went into business together, buying a sawmill at Golden Lake. By the following year, the business was incorporated as Lee Wilson & Co. As the partners cleared land farther away from the mill, they established logging camps, all of which were equipped with a company store, and towns quickly grew up around them. ... Unlike most timbering operations in the area that had abandoned their cutover land, Wilson cleared and drained his land and began growing cotton and, later, corn and alfalfa."
By the time R.E.L. Wilson died in 1933, he owned more than 65,000 acres of farmland. The company town of Wilson began in 1886 with a sawmill, a company store and a few homes.
"Constructed as a model town, its residents enjoyed a standard of living that was higher than the average for Delta residents," Grisham writes. "In the 1930s, households paid $1.25 to cover basic medical care and had access to health care from company doctors at a time when most people had none at all. Homes were rented for low monthly rates with lawn maintenance and water included in the rental price. ... It is an unusually attractive town with its entire downtown commercial district constructed in the English Revival, or Tudor, style and its streets lined with large cottonwood trees."
Hampson was born at Memphis in 1877. His maternal grandfather purchased the 3,000-acre Nodena Plantation near what's now Wilson in 1879. Hampson's father and mother lived on the plantation until 1907. Hampson practiced medicine until 1924, when he moved to California with his wife. He returned to Nodena three years later and began his archaeological collection. Hampson opened a small museum on the plantation in 1946 and named it the Henry Clay Hampson Memorial Museum after his son, who had been killed while flying in Southeast Asia during World War II. When James Hampson died in 1956, the collection consisted of more than 40,000 artifacts documenting the lives of the natives who lived in the area from 1400-1650. The collection was donated to the state in 1957, the building to house it was dedicated in 1961, and a renovation took place in 1978. The old facility was closed late last year to prepare for the move to the town square.
Built in the style of other buildings on the square, the $4.1 million facility is the result of a public-private partnership between the state Department of Parks and Tourism and the Lawrence Group. In October 2010, it was announced that the Wilson family was selling Lee Wilson & Co. A couple of months later, news broke that the company had been purchased by Gaylon Lawrence Sr. of Sikeston, Mo., and Gaylon Lawrence Jr. of Nashville, Tenn. The younger Lawrence fretted for a time about what to do with the declining company town before deciding to make it the jewel of the Arkansas Delta. He moved the Lawrence Group there and has spent untold millions transforming the town. I've written before about what it has to offer--the upscale Wilson Cafe, the elite Delta School, singer-songwriter Holly Williams' chic White's Mercantile.
I was browsing inside White's Mercantile earlier this fall (and buying more than I should in a place that's right out of Garden & Gun magazine) when I picked up a copy of The Wilsonian, a good-looking bimonthly newsletter distributed by the Lawrence Group. It noted that additional changes are afoot in the town. Gunn's Supermarket, which has been on the square for more than two decades, will move into the former bus depot next year. That move will allow for expanded food offerings and bring gas pumps to the town for the first time in many years.
Owner Mike Gunn told The Wilsonian: "The meat department will be wide open so people can come in when our butcher is on duty and watch their meat being cut right there on the spot. We're adding indoor and outdoor seating to our deli, which is really exciting since it's something we've never had in our current location. We're coming up with ideas that are going to make grocery shopping an event and not just a dreaded thing to do."
What's next for the town of Wilson? If I had to guess, I would say a boutique hotel to serve the increasing number of people visiting the nearby Johnny Cash boyhood home at Dyess. You can bet that Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has much more in mind.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 12/01/2018
Print Headline: REX NELSON: A town transformed