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Wilson - A Historic Village

Something huge is happening in a tiny Arkansas town, and people are taking notice.

The small town of Wilson is undergoing about as big of an overhaul as you can imagine for a community of just 900. How the town came to be and its evolution in recent years truly make this little area one-of-a-kind.

Farm magnate Gaylon Lawrence Jr. oversees an estate that essentially purchased the entire town in 2010. His family owns most of the farmland that encircles Wilson. They also own a large majority of commercial property in town.

Lawrence bought the town from the Wilsons, who had owned the town for 125 years but sold their estate after a sudden death in the family.

Founded by Robert E. Lee Wilson in 1886, Wilson was considered the most important “company town” in the South and the Mississippi Delta Region. His company claimed to own the world’s largest cotton plantation, with 57,000 acres. His family owned the town by way of running every major business from bank to schools to the cotton gin.

So when Lawrence stepped in, people wondered what was in store. So far, it’s been more than they could have imagined. Lawrence has pumped millions into the town, sprucing up aged buildings and overhauling or even resuscitating others, including the historic cotton gin and old town favorite Wilson Cafe. Naturally, other newer initiatives for this farm community include a large gardening system and a community-supported agriculture program.

Wilson Gardens

Agriculture is quite literally at the roots of Wilson. Farming is an old art that many still respect and practice here, and it remains a focal point of the town. The key is helping locals make the connection between people, land and food.

Enter Wilson Gardens. The idea officially germinated in spring 2014 as an initiative to generate crops for locals and to grow a different kind of farm, according to farm director Leslie Wolverton. Produce from these 200 acres can be found locally in Wilson at our Grange Farm Market, through the community-supported agriculture program, and in area restaurants.

“Our mission is simply to support the people of our region in leading healthier, richer lives,” Wolverton said. “We are working to bringing people together in the celebration of food: how it is cultivated, prepared and feasted upon. By nurturing the connection between people, food and the land in which it is grown, we intend to build a resilient community of empowered eaters.”

The farm hosts village hall meetings, as well as community events like a regular music series, film festival and even Santa visits. It is also rentable venue.

Hampson Archeological Museum

Another gem in town is the Hampson Archeological Museum, which houses one of the world’s most extraordinary collections of American Indian artisan experiences and artifacts, and it’s a major source of data on the lives and history of late pre-Columbian people of the Mississippi River Valley. Work is underway on a new, state-of-the-art space, where it will house the noteworthy artifacts from the 15-acre Nodena site of Late Mississippian Period Native Americans.

The new incarnation will offer special programming in addition to an interactive educational exhibit. It is named after landowner and archeologist James K. Hampson, who began excavating the site in the 1920s. Prior to that, in 1900, Hampson had documented the nearby discovery of a prehistoric mastodon skeleton.

They call him Ish

One of the people most representative of Wilson is Ismael Herrera, who’s known by almost everyone as simply “Ish.” He is the creative mind and unassuming personality behind an unusual collection of buildings along Highway 61, just off I-55 near Bassett, Ark. He operates and maintains the buildings, some businesses and much of the machinery in and around Wilson, thanks to his working knowledge and experience as a welder, farm mechanic, bar owner and veteran.

Wilson might be small in numbers, but it’s large in character and interest. The history here plus its ongoing, remarkable transformation make it a unique tourism destination that won’t soon be forgotten.

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