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Lee Wilson’s Delta empire

I’ve written on the Southern Fried blog before about my fascination with Lee Wilson & Co., which once operated one of the largest cotton plantations in the world, helped shape life in northeast Arkansas and remained in the same family for almost 125 years.

If you have an interest in the history of the Arkansas Delta, you should read Jeannie Whayne’s book “Delta Empire,” which was released last year by the Louisiana State University Press.

Whayne, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, is an expert on the Delta, having written “A New Plantation South” and having edited “Sunnyside: Evolution of a Plantation in Arkansas, 1830-1945” along with “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox.”

More than just the story of Robert E. “Lee” Wilson, “Delta Empire” is in many respects the story of Southern agriculture from the late 1800s through the early 1950s.

Lee Wilson inherited 400 acres in Mississippi County following his father’s death in 1870. He expanded that initial inheritance into a 50,000-acre lumber and cotton operation, buying swampland for as little as 50 cents an acre, draining it, selling the harvested cypress and other bottomland hardwoods and turning it into cotton fields.

Whayne had considered doing her dissertation on the Wilson plantation in the 1980s but says “an encounter with a snake in the basement of a Mississippi County jail convinced me to look elsewhere for a dissertation topic. No company records existed, or so it seemed at the time, and a county official indicated that county records were unavailable to me.

“Oscar Fendler, a longtime attorney representing the Wilson family, gained me entry to the basement of the county jail so that I could examine the records discarded there. Thus began an adventure that Fendler, who died a few years ago, never tired of recalling, though he only heard the story from me — I think.

“The jailer held a flashlight, a guard stood by with a rifle as two black prisoners in jail jumpsuits picked up the books and held them in the light for me to examine. Finding nothing of interest, I noticed another stack of books across the room and started to move toward them. Years later it occurred to me that the entire charade — aside from the snake which slithered by at that moment and could not have been choreographed — was intended to discourage me. It worked. I chose another topic.”

Before entering that basement, Whayne had visited the company offices in the English Tudor-style town of Wilson and had come up empty in her search for records.

Following the release of “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox,” Whayne was participating in a book signing event at Mary Gay Shipley’s wonderful That Bookstore In Blytheville. Whayne was approached during the event by Mike Wilson, who asked her to write a history of Lee Wilson & Co.

“I had some understandable misgivings,” Whayne writes. “Any book I wrote, I explained to Mike, would be critical of certain aspects of the company’s operation. He insisted he understood that and believed that it was important to cover all aspects of the company’s history. He wanted the unvarnished truth, and I came to understand that he meant what he said.”

Mike Wilson donated company ledgers to the University of Arkansas archives. The real breakthrough came with the discovery of company correspondence files.

“Mike called me some time in the late 1990s to tell me that when workmen removed a malfunctioning air conditioning unit to replace it, they discovered a false wall and a room full of boxes,” Whayne writes.

Those papers also were donated to the university.

Mike Wilson died suddenly in 2008 while Whayne was working on the book. His brother Steve, his sister Midge and Mike’s son Perry continued to work with Whayne. Meanwhile, the late Dr. Eldon Fairley of the Mississippi County Historical Society rescued those county records from the basement of the jail.

In October 2010, it was announced that the Wilson family was selling the company. In December of that year, it was revealed that Gaylon Lawrence Sr. of Sikeston, Mo., and Gaylon Lawrence Jr. of Nashville, Tenn., had paid an estimated $150 million for Lee Wilson & Co.

An era had ended in the Arkansas Delta.

Lawrence Jr. is known in the Nashville area as the owner of Tennessee Bank & Trust. The father and son own four other banks in Missouri and Arkansas. Their diversified Lawrence Group even purchased U.S. Air Conditioning Distributors, which had almost $600 million in annual sales and operations.

The Lawrence Group owns more than 165,000 acres in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois and several other states. Everything from cotton to soybeans to citrus is grown on that land.

The Lawrence purchase of the Wilson estate stands as one example of the trend toward investors holding agricultural real estate as part of their portfoilios, Whayne writes.

“Most of these people have little understanding of agricultural production or appreciation for the local communities,” she says. “Lawrence himself, a banker (with Tennessee Bank & Trust of Nashville) who holds agricultural lands from California to Florida, including part of the old Delta Pine & Land Co. in Mississippi, does possess some connection to southeast Missouri and northeastern Arkansas. His family has roots in Sikeston and at some point acquired ownership of Farmers Bank & Trust in Blytheville. The latter connection shadows an earlier association with Lee Wilson, who became a director of Farmers Bank & Trust in 1932.

“Lawrence’s purchase of the Wilson estate mirrors a larger trend among investment firms acquiring agricultural lands, purchases that made sense during the economic crisis which began in 2007. While residential and commercial real estate prices plummeted, agricultural lands rose in value, in tandem with the rise in agricultural prices.

“Investment firms like the Winchester Group of Champaign, Ill., and TIAA-CREF, the college pension fund, have increased their holdings in agricultural lands as a way to offset the declining value of other kinds of real estate.”

The trend of Delta farms becoming part of corporate portfolios followed other major changes in the region.

“With fewer farmworkers needed, the population of the county began to decline after World War II, falling from 80,286 in 1950 to 70,055 in 1960 to 51,979 in 2000 (after Whayne had finished work on her book, the 2010 census figure for Mississippi County came in at 46,480. That means the county has lost 34,000 residents in the past six decades).”

She continues: “While industrial jobs began providing some alternative sources of employment, they were late in arriving and remain insufficiently robust enough to offset the decline in farm labor jobs made obsolete by the advent of scientific agriculture. Only the northern end of the county has exceeded expectations, largely for two reasons. First, given the higher incidence of land ownership and the ability of even landless famers there to gain at least some personal property, they were the least likely of any population in the county — or elsewhere in the Delta — to depart.

“Second, the placement of the Air Force training base in Blytheville provided an anchor which sustained a population base. When the government closed the base in the early 1990s, things looked bleak for a while but then Nucor moved into the area just east of Blytheville in the mid-1990s and turned things around.”

Whayne notes that as sharecroppers left the Delta, plantation owners “burned or bulldozed their tenant houses and planted cotton or soybeans on their foundations in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Although plantation agriculture had some prominence in north Mississippi County — particularly east of Big Lake with Wilson’s Armorel operation as merely the most prominent example — small farmers also operated there and remained in place. As they struggled to stay alive in the capital-intensive economic environment confronting farmers, whether big or small, they served as a ready labor force as Nucor and allied industries moved into the region in the 1990s.”

Whayne worries that investment firms and portofolio managers will have little inclination to improve the quality of life for those who live in these areas.

“Unlike local planters who have established long-standing relationships with the men who lease their lands, portfolio planters will be interested only in the bottom line,” she writes. “When the enterprise becomes strictly a business transaction, lessees potentially become expendable. … As out-of-state investors looking to maximize their profits, they will have even less interest in the environmental consequences of burning rice stubble or the overuse of certain potentially harmful chemicals.”

Only time will tell whether the move toward more corporate farming and out-of-state ownership will be good for the Arkansas Delta. Regardless, those interested in the region and its history will enjoy “Delta Empire” as Jeannie Whayne recounts a part of our state’s history that has come to an end.

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