How this small farming town is slowly becoming a cultural epicenter.
For well over a century, Wilson, Arkansas, the once-booming agrarian town was home to many families and sharecroppers. Established (and later incorporated in the 1950s) by Robert E. Lee Wilson in 1886—a pioneer affectionately known as “Boss Lee”—there’s never been a more productive company town in the South than Wilson. Lee Wilson had the vision to see how thousands of acres of wastelands could be transformed into farmlands and a vast timber, logging, and sawmill operation. In its heyday, Wilson was an agricultural and cotton-producing powerhouse, providing jobs to hundreds of laborers with every spin of the wheel.
Then the Great Depression happened, and the storied town's prominent industry began to die, too, as residents left to find work. It’s been an uphill battle ever since to get Wilson back to its glory days as the once-proud Delta municipality, bearing the name of its founder. But thanks to new owner Gaylon Lawrence Jr. and town manager John Faulkner, Wilson is experiencing a resurgence, gradually recouping its reputation among its 900 residents and regaining its footing as a homey detour away from the neighboring city of Memphis, Tennessee.
The new strides made towards cultural, social, and educational advancement embody the vision Lee Wilson had for this Southern gem back in the 1900s, only it has been slightly reimagined for today to draw vacationers and to bring Arkansans back home. No longer just a pit stop along the scenic stretch of U.S. Highway 61, where the mighty Mississippi River meets “the Blues Highway,” here's how Lawrence and Faulkner are building upon Wilson’s ever-present character and rich history.
Welcome to the new and approved Wilson! So glad to have you back.
Speaking of reimagining, White’s Mercantile, “a general store for the modern-day tastemaker” is housed in the old Wilson gas station, but you can expect to shop from a treasure trove of new and exclusive finds akin to the Delta region. Because of Wilson’s unique location along the famed musical highway, it’s only fitting that owner Holly Williams, Hank Williams Jr.’s daughter, decided to open her third location here in May 2017.
The town’s solely designated neighborhood farm and community garden, Wilson Gardens was started in 2014 by Leslie Wolverton. Not only are fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown there, but Wolverton supplies locals and restaurants in Memphis with her healthy and delicious bounty.
The Delta School
The Delta School isn’t your average educational institution. Students don’t just sit in a classroom at the small private academy, instead they engage in interactive, creative programs in greenhouse-style rooms, where they learn by doing. One thing you won't find here are humdrum PB&J sandwiches and milk. Fresh food straight from Wilson Gardens is served to each student.
The Town Square
One stroll through the historic town square, and you’ll notice a commonality shared by all the buildings and storefronts: Tudor architecture. Reportedly, Lee Wilson’s son became really attached to the style on a trip to England, which is why most of the buildings on the square are painted a British green. In addition to the decor, the typical small-town businesses are all there, including Gunn’s Supermarket, the bank, post office, theater, pharmacy, and, of course, an old-school soda fountain.
The Wilson Café
We can all agree a small town isn't complete without a must-stop restaurant for locals. Nestled in the heart of town square, lies the historic institution—Wilson Café. Homestyle food, dessert, wines, and Southern-inspired cocktails (see: Hayride and Dark & Stormy) are on the menu. Besides the coveted sweet potato pie, "The Fire Bird" hot chicken sandwich, and rustic, industrial decor, what really sets Wilson Café apart from other down-home eateries is its farm-to-table commitment. The veggie-friendly selections highlight ingredients sourced directly from Wilson Gardens, which is right across the street from the restaurant.
The Wilson Music Series
With its deep musical roots displayed along the Great River Road, it’s only fitting for Wilson to showcase homegrown talent in select venues across town. A quarterly music series, this month’s special performer is country music artist Sammy Kershaw, who will perform at the Delta School on June 24.
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Stay tuned for Hampson Archeological Museum
Expected to make its debut this fall, the Hampson Archeological Museum will be positioned at the end of town square, where patrons can paricipate in interactive exhibits and view Native American artifacts, dating back to 1400 A.D.