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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Delta giants

by Rex Nelson | June 19, 2022 at 1:51 a.m.

I took an unpaid leave from my job in the governor's office in the spring of 1998 after being asked by Gov. Mike Huckabee to manage his campaign for a full four-year term. One of the first things I did at campaign headquarters was put up an Arkansas map and add the names of major supporters in each county.

Mississippi County, among the largest counties geographically, didn't have a name attached to it. I called Chuck Banks of Little Rock, who had served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas for five years after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

Banks' father, A.A. "Shug" Banks, served as Mississippi County judge for two decades and was a president of the Association of Arkansas Counties. He had been a director of the National Association of Counties and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention three times.

"Here's what you need to do," Chuck told me. "Drive to Blytheville and get a room for the night at the Holiday Inn. At 7:30 a.m., wander down to the Perkins Restaurant connected to the hotel. There will be a table at the back filled with men drinking coffee. Sit down and visit. My dad will be there, but the guy you really need to impress is John Ed Regenold. If you win these men over, they'll be the best friends you've ever had."

I drove from Little Rock to Blytheville the following week. I made my way to the table the next morning and introduced myself. A man I later learned was Regenold said, "You should know before you sit down that there have been more political races lost at this table than anywhere else in Arkansas."

Everyone laughed. I ordered breakfast and then talked politics for the next two hours. Several months later, Regenold hosted a fundraising event for Huckabee. If you represented a Republican candidate in those days, it was almost guaranteed that your largest-grossing event would be in Fort Smith or Benton County. Our largest event was in Regenold's backyard on a hot summer night.

The nearby airport was filled with private jets. Regenold saw to it that Nucor Corp. executives flew in from across the country to donate to Huckabee.

Regenold died last month at home in Blytheville at age 90. He hailed from an influential farming family, graduated from Kentucky Military Institute, and later attended the University of Arkansas. Regenold then became a Delta planter in the very best sense of that word, spending 23 years on the powerful St. Francis Levee Board.

Huckabee appointed Regenold to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and later the Arkansas Highway Commission, where he was chairman in 2013-14.

Regenold was a cotton man to the end. His obituary read: "Though he enjoyed being involved in all the committees, farming and ginning were his passion and livelihood. He was well repected in the community in which he lived and farmed. He always made sure his farmlands were well cared for and maintained.

"He began his career in 1953 with Armorel Planting Co., became vice president of the company in February 1960, and in 2002 became president and CEO. He held this position until his death. He lived life to the fullest."

Regenold's father had worked for the famous Wilson family of Mississippi County before buying land from them.

In the early 1990s when I was political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Mike Wilson tried unsuccessfully to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. If approved by voters, the amendment would have allowed Wilson to build a casino at West Memphis. Wilson had even signed an agreement with Dick Clark to make a music museum part of the casino.

In news stories, we described Wilson as a "prominent Delta planter." He called me one day and said he preferred to be called just a farmer since "planter" is a pejorative term that makes people think of the evils of slavery and the sharecropping and tenant farming systems that followed.

I replied: "Mr. Wilson, it's kind of like the old story from the U.S. Supreme Court of not being able to define pornography but knowing it when one sees it. I can't define planter. But your operation is just too big for us to say you're a farmer."

In the cover story of today's Perspective section, I write about the switch from cotton to steel in Mississippi County. Farming remains an important part of the Delta economy. It's just that farmers aren't the political and civic giants they once were.

The true giant in Mississippi County these days actually calls Nashville, Tenn., home, though Gaylon Lawrence Jr. was raised in the nearby Missouri Bootheel.

Lawrence ranks among the country's largest landowners, owning everything from citrus groves in Florida to vineyards in California. In December, his photo was on the cover of Wine Spectator magazine with the headline "Meet Napa's New Power Player."

"Gaylon Lawrence Jr.--the new proprietor of Heitz, Burgess, Stony Hill and more--is not investing all this money just for fun," the story read. "He wants his wineries to operate as small, largely independent fine-wine producers, but he intends to give them the market presence of a mid-sized wine company."

Two years earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle featured a headline that read: "Is Gaylon Lawrence Jr. building a Napa Valley empire?"

In 2010, when Wilson family descendants were finally ready to sell what had once been touted as the nation's biggest cotton plantation, Lawrence bought it for a reported $110 million.

Four years later, he was attracting national attention with his plans. Kim Severson wrote in The New York Times: "The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls, and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards.

"Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age. For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, bank, schools and cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land."

Wilson was finally incorporated in 1959, and a Wilson was always mayor. In that story eight years ago, Severson wrote of Lawrence's plans to "transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education."

Those dreams are now coming true. In advance of its fall opening, the Hotel Louis is running ads in the country's leading magazines. Wilson, it seems, may soon be a place that attracts affluent visitors from across the country to eat, drink, shop, listen to music and learn about the Delta lifestyle.

"Constructed as a model town, Wilson had residents who enjoyed a standard of living higher than the average for the Delta," writes historian Cindy Grisham. "In the 1930s, all households paid $1.25 to cover basic medical care and have access to company doctors. ... Homes were rented for low monthly rates with lawn maintenance and water included in the rental price.

"After Robert E. Lee Wilson Jr. and his bride returned from their wedding trip to England, they set out to build a large home in the Tudor style. From the time the home was finished in 1925, all buildings in Wilson were built in the same manner. Existing buildings were retrofitted with brick facades to ensure the Tudor styling. The cottonwood trees that shade the community were one of the first beautification projects."

Now, aided by the steel mill momentum just to the north, Lawrence is creating a Delta wonderland in the shade of those cottonwoods.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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