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Wilson: The model town

I parked my car on the town square at Wilson in Mississippi County on a weekday earlier this fall, and I could hear it: The sound of construction.

It’s a sound that hadn’t been heard here in decades.

Last year, architects, designers, elected officials and employees of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism gathered on the square for the groundbreaking of a new home for the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park. It marked the first new construction on the town square in 57 years.

At the time of the 2015 ceremony, Becton Bell, the mayor, told reporters that the Wilson square “defines our city. It’s the first thing everyone notices when they come to town. Hopefully it’s going to bring a lot of tourism to the town and, in turn, help all of our businesses. … Things aren’t always looking up for the Delta. For Wilson, they are right now.”

That’s an understatement.

Thanks to the passion of businessman Gaylon Lawrence Jr., Wilson is being transformed into the shining jewel of the Delta.

What once was the company town for one of the largest cotton plantations in the world has become the headquarters for The Lawrence Group, an entity with real estate, bank and other holdings. The Lawrence Group even controls the nation’s largest privately owned air conditioning distributor. The company owns an estimated 180,000 acres of farmland across the country, including some of the largest citrus groves in Florida.

Lawrence told the Nashville Business Journal earlier this year that he’s “an accumulator” who prefers investing in “good, solid assets that I can own for a lifetime.”

The company was started by his father in Sikeston, Mo., a place Arkansans probably know best for the “throwed rolls” at Lambert’s Cafe. After graduating from Mississippi State University, the younger Lawrence went to work for his father. For almost 15 years, he oversaw the company’s farming asset management division. Lawrence also owns banks in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

In late 2010, The Lawrence Group purchased the assets of Lee Wilson & Co., including almost all of the commercial property in Wilson. Lawrence moved from Nashville to Memphis at the time of the purchase, explaining to the Nashville Business Journal: “Along with our other interests up an down the Mississippi Delta, I just needed to be closer. It was a little bit of the situation in reverse when I first moved to Nashville in 2003.”

In the past couple of years, though, Lawrence has become more engaged than ever in the booming Nashville market.

In a profile of Lawrence published earlier this year, the Nashville Business Journal’s Scott Harrison wrote: “He prefers to be out of the limelight. But Gaylon Lawrence Jr. is about to grab Nashville’s attention in a major way. Few have the resources or the inclination to pay all cash for a bank. Lawrence did just that last fall. With one $85 million check, the Nashville billionaire swooped in and bought one of the largest banks in Middle Tennessee and the region’s second-largest mortgage lender, Clarksville’s F&M Bank.

“The Missouri native has flirted with Greater Nashville for more than a decade, launching Tennessee Bank & Trust in Franklin 13 years ago and playing his hand in various commercial real estate deals, including financing the Gulch’s newest office tower. But with his purchase of F&M, Lawrence established himself as a power player in Nashville banking. And he isn’t done yet — not in the least.

“On the hunt for his next investments, both in banking and real estate, Lawrence stands to be a mover and shaker in Nashville business circles for the foreseeable future.”

Despite the diverse portfolio, his background is in agriculture, and Lawrence long had coveted the Wilson family land in northeast Arkansas.

“Business colleagues and partners describe Lawrence as intelligent and savvy, able to quickly sift through and vet potential ventures,” Harrison writes. “He looks like the consummate businessman: Tall, well-dressed in a navy pinstriped suit and red tie, hair parted to the left. A smile pops up on his face with regularity as he describes his business plans in a measured cadence, accented by his Southern drawl.”

In northeast Arkansas, Lawrence follows in the footsteps of the Wilson family, long titans in Arkansas business and political circles.

R.E. Lee Wilson established a sawmill at what’s now Wilson in 1886 and then cleared the thousands of surrounding acres of virgin bottomland hardwood trees. A company store was soon added along with company-owned homes. As the timber was cut and drainage ditches were dug, the land surrounding the town was converted to cotton fields.

When R.E. Lee Wilson Jr. and his bride returned from their honeymoon to Great Britian, they vowed to construct not only their home but also the commercial buildings at Wilson in the Tudor style. The company began selling the homes it owned to residents in 1945.

“Existing buildings were retrofitted with brick facades to obtain the Tudor styling as well,” Cindy Grisham writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The cottonwood trees that shade the community were among the first beautification projects. They were chosen because they had no commercial value, and no one would be tempted to cut them down. Lee Wilson & Co. operated the town of Wilson as a wholly owned subsidiary until after World War II. Its residents were all company employees, and no tax revenue was collected to assist with maintenance and upkeep of the town. By 1945, the town was operating at a considerable loss, and the company decided to sell the homes to their owners and incorporate the town. This allowed the town access to tax dollars, which finally stabilized it financially.

“The average price of a home in Wilson at the time was about $4,000. R.E. Lee Wilson III, who by this time was in charge of the operations, believed that individual ownership of homes made the residents happier and more involved in the success of the community. With the increased mechanization in agriculture, fewer laborers were needed to successfully operate the Wilson farming operation. Residents of Wilson began seeking employment elsewhere. Today, most of the town’s residents commute to the larger communities in the region such as Osceola or Blytheville to work.”

The deal between the Wilson family and The Lawrence Group was finalized in December 2010 at an estimated price of $150 million. Lawrence at first considered keeping the 40,000 acres of farmland that came with the purchase while divesting himself of the commercial property at Wilson. He became fascinated with the history of the town, though, and decided instead to pour millions of dollars into Wilson in an effort to transform it into a model community for the Delta.

Lawrence wants Wilson to be a center for education, culture and the arts.

In a May feature about Wilson in the Arkansas Times, David Koon wrote: “These days, the small Delta towns that once bustled with scrubbed up field hands on weekend nights are well on their way to ghostly. Since 2012, however, something fairly amazing has been taking place in Wilson, a town of just over 900 on U.S. Highway 61 in Mississippi County. On a recent Friday, excavators and dump trucks trundled back and forth at sites all over town, moving dirt in preparation for new construction. At the Wilson Café on the town square, new forks and spoons clinked on new plates, the food prepared by a young chef uprooted from a ritzy restaurant in Memphis and repotted here, the dining room tiled and painted and polished until it looked like something out of Architectural Digest.

“Near the center of town, an organic garden pushed into the damp April daylight, overseen by a young, never-slowing idealist and her staff, the operation spinning out from a new classroom/concert space/demonstration kitchen meant to resemble a tin barn, but which is decidedly not a tin barn. On the outskirts of town, in a restored mansion that might remind one of Harry Potter’s alma mater inside and out, 45 kids attended the private Delta School, where a lesson on photosynthesis might be taught with a trip to the garden and physics might be demonstrated by building a go-kart, under the watchful eye of a brilliant, Ivy League-educated teacher whose groundbreaking ideas once landed her on the bestseller list.

“In town, property values have doubled, with houses that go on the market routinely selling in fewer than four days. Residents out for a walk are getting used to being stopped by drivers who ask if they know of property in town, any property, that’s for sale. The town’s movie theater, which screened its last film around the time Raquel Welch was a big deal, will soon flicker to life again as a modular space that can host stage plays, concerts and films.”

These are all pieces of the puzzle that Lawrence is putting together at Wilson.

There’s The Delta School, the private institution centered around a former Wilson family mansion.

There’s the community garden that was created under the direction of a former Oxford, Miss., organic farmer named Leslie Wolverton.

There’s the food of Joe Cartwright, the chef from Memphis who reopened the Wilson Café. The idea was that a quality restaurant would help people become accustomed to stopping once more in Wilson.

Late next year, the new home of the Hampson Museum will give those traveling between Memphis and St. Louis yet another reason to visit the Wilson square.

The museum houses a collection of artifacts from a Mississippian Period village that existed in the area from about 1400 to 1650. Dr. James K. Hampson, who died in 1956, began collecting artifacts in the 1930s.

“As a boy, Hampson was fascinated by arrowheads,” Marlon Mowdy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His interest in archaeology was rekindled in the early 1920s when he returned to the family plantation, Nodena, to set up a successful medical practice. In 1927, he began a painstaking study of the physical remains of the people who inhabited the Nodena site. Hampson, his wife and his children excavated and carefully documented portions of the Nodena site. Their well-documented discoveries led to national recognition for Hampson and major excavations by the University of Arkansas and the Alabama Museum of Natural History. The two entities excavated, surveyed, inventoried and cataloged many Late Mississippian Period artifacts from the site from the early 1930s to the 1970s, including a 1973 field school that was held at the same location.

“The original museum was constructed on Hampson’s Nodena Plantation in 1946 and named the Henry Clay Hampson Memorial Museum in honor of Hampson’s son, who was killed in action flying over Burma during World War II. The museum collection numbered more than 40,000 artifacts when Hampson died on Oct. 8, 1956. The collection stayed in the old wooden facility during the 1950s until a building next to the museum burned. The Hampson family promptly offered the collection to the state.”

The current state museum was dedicated in 1961 after R.E. Lee Wilson III donated a five-acre site. The museum was renovated in 1978, but it’s tiny and outmoded. The folks at The Lawrence Group decided that a state-of-the-art facility, which will cost more than $4 million to build, was key to their vision for Wilson.

Lawrence’s efforts at Wilson first attracted national attention in January 2014 when Kim Severson wrote a story for The New York Times.

“At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?'” Lawrence told Severson. “But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst. I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. … This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

Here’s what Lawrence had to say earlier this year when the Arkansas Times asked him why he has invested so much time, money and manpower in Wilson: “In 2010, when we were afforded the opportunity to acquire the historic Lee Wilson & Co., what came with that was a significant part of the town of Wilson itself. We were therefore confronted with the challenge of moving forward as stewards of the physical buildings in town and a very unique legacy. But over time, and through many discussions with the local community, development experts and folks across the state, we understood a very real chance to make a positive difference.

“I’m from the Bootheel of Missouri and have lived most of my life in and around the Delta. So reinvesting in Wilson not only makes business sense for the farming operation, but it will also hopefully help build a renewal model for the entire region.”

Those who know Gaylon Lawrence Jr. expect there will be much more to come in the years ahead.

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