Becton Bell is as plainspoken a mayor as you’re ever likely to meet. From his Mississippi County rice farm, where he raises the crop that feeds the world, he fields questions on things related to street maintenance and ways to keep kids like his from growing up and straying too far from their hometown.
You’d never guess you are talking to a living piece of Arkansas political history, but that’s just what the 41-year-old mayor of Wilson, Arkansas, is; the first mayor not one of, or employed by, the Wilson family which founded the town in 1886 and owned it for many years after. Asked what made him want to step into such a momentous role, he shoots you straight.
“I didn’t really want to,” he said. “Some people in town thought I’d be a good mayor for some reason, and I kind of felt led to do it. Being a mayor of a small town doesn’t pay anything; I’m a farmer for a living. Being mayor, I felt like, would help things along.”
Whether or not he previously envisioned himself as the city’s chief executive, Bell is in many ways the perfect man to lead the former company town into a new and exciting chapter. After all, as the fifth-generation to farm land around Wilson, his family tree is as firmly rooted as the town’s namesake clan. And growing up around here gives him a born-in appreciation both for the challenges that face small Delta communities and how Wilson’s fortunes are playing out differently.. The Wilson family had a huge presence in Wilson; they helped keep the town in really good shape,” he said. “First of all, it’s safe and, again, going back to the Wilson family, has been kept very clean. Residents have always been encouraged to keep their property clean. People here take pride in their town, and that’s something visitors notice.
“When [the Wilson family] sold, things were slowly on a decline but not nearly as fast as the rest of the Delta because they had really tried to keep things looking nice and functional. When they passed the torch to The Lawrence Group, they had a good place to start.”
Residents didn’t have long to wait to find out what the town’s new benefactors’ intentions were. Improvements made by The Lawrence Group investment have been immediate, sustained and nothing short of remarkable. Physical improvements and community events headlined by food, wine and cultural happenings have created a tourism buzz unlike anything to be found in the Arkansas Delta, while the founding of a private school and improved Internet connectivity has benefited (and grown) permanent residents.
It’s the kind of rebirth that has landed Wilson’s story on the pages of Garden & Gun and The New York Times while attracting new blood such as hospitality-and-tourism lifer Norbert Mede, who landed the job of VP of operations for The Lawrence Group a year ago.
“To me, this project is the best job that I’ve ever had and will have,” said Mede, who relocated from the San Francisco Bay area last month. “Wilson had its heyday and fell into disrepair, so to speak, and now to be a part of a true renaissance revitalization is very exciting.
“I’ve always been a huge proponent of small-town America and bringing back that feel of community. Economic vitality needs to be a part of that, and that is very difficult to do in a lot of places without some sort of backing. I see a lot of regional potential in this area. There’s a lot of unsung, unmarketed assets we can really leverage and bring to people’s forefront to make this a very sought-after area to live, work and visit.”
It stands to reason that this most unlikely of comebacks should happen in Wilson. Founded with a sawmill and company store by Lee Wilson & Company, a diversified agribusiness concern that effectively owned the town for roughly 125 years, the community’s history has always been steeped in the unusual and unique.
Take the family (and town) patriarch, for instance. Robert Edward Lee Wilson was born in Mississippi County to a solidly successful plantation owner, according to Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Orphaned by his mid-teens, he developed an uncanny sense for land values. Where others saw untillable woodlands, for instance, he saw business opportunity, once even trading productive farmland he’d inherited for ground covered by timber. He also went against the grain of logging practices by converting cut-over land to farming, rather than abandoning it as was common at the time.
Wilson’s tactics paid off; at the time of his death in 1933, the company tilled 65,000 acres and had expanded into banking, mercantile, cotton gins, manufacturing and even built or bought portions of railroad to tie everything together.
Boss Wilson, as he was commonly known, also left behind various company towns, which he founded as model communities to house and provide amenities for his workers. Wilson, the headquarters town, and nearby Marie, Victoria and Armorel all came to be under the same concept, first in timber and then as the land was cleared and drained, for sharecroppers.
The ventures weren’t without controversy. History now regards sharecropping as a short step from indentured servitude, and Boss Wilson at times paid his employees in company script, which critics say assured their staying poor and in place. But by all accounts, he also treated his employees better than other land barons, providing health care at a time when such fringe benefits were scarce, especially for Black workers.
Through changing time and evolving labor practices, the towns remained wholly owned subsidiaries of Lee Wilson & Company until after World War II. Even after incorporating “independently,” the family’s influence loomed large in all aspects of operations and governance.
“When I became mayor, we didn’t even have our own city hall,” Bell said. “For years, people didn’t know the difference between Lee Wilson & Company and the city of Wilson. You paid your water bill at the Lee Wilson & Company office. We never had a city clerk before I became mayor; the Wilsons handled that all in-house. So, there was a lot of confusion there about who was what.”
Given that, you could forgive any resident who regarded The Lawrence Group’s 2010 arrival as “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” but they would be sadly mistaken. The company already owned 165,000 acres in multiple states, as well as numerous other businesses, so Wilson was as much a passion project as business play.
“[The late] Gaylon Lawrence Sr. grew up working alongside his sister, mother and father on the family farm north of Pollard in Clay County,” wrote the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Rex Nelson in an April 2020 column. “He later purchased and worked on farms in southeast Missouri. Gaylon Lawrence Jr. worked on those farms as a boy. The younger Lawrence … wanted the thousands of acres of rich farmland owned by Lee Wilson & Co. He wasn’t sure what to do with the town.
“Lawrence Jr. at first considered keeping the farmland that came with the purchase while divesting himself of the commercial property at Wilson. But he became fascinated with the history of the town and decided instead to pour millions of dollars into Wilson.”
So began the counter-intuitive adventure of selling visitors on a community not on the strength of any one major attraction, but a hundred smaller, quieter ones; in essence, selling real-life “small town” to those who’d never seen it or who pined to return to it. And while that vision is admittedly idealized, with a calendar of events and improvements made substantially easier by The Lawrence Group’s deep pockets, it’s all being done without a roller coaster, garish casino or even a single fast-food drive-thru in sight.
“We’re not looking to bring in a convention center here locally. We’re really not apt to host thousands of people for some type of convention,” said Cyndi Detty, The Lawrence Group’s director of marketing. “One thing you notice here is we do not have any type of chain business. Everything is locally owned. Our niche is really for people who are looking for an experience.
“What attracts the majority of our tourists right now is the café, the wine experiences, the wine dinners. Once they experience that, they fall in love with the town, as well. We’re not cookie-cutter. We don’t look like anybody else. All of our buildings are in the English Tudor architecture, which right there, sets us apart. We don’t look like a typical small town.”
Detty, who was so taken with the opportunity here she commutes two hours from Memphis daily, said people are also intrigued by the town’s comeback story and want to be a part of it.
“People can feel the growth that is happening here,” she said. “We’ve recently opened up a new outdoor center this past spring, and we’ll have bike trails and bike rentals available. We are in the process of building a boutique hotel, the Hotel Louis, which will be opening up in December. There’s a whole slew of businesses that will be popping up over the next two or three years.
“Really, I think people enjoy coming here, getting fabulous food and having a little bit of an education on history or farming or wine or the whole culinary aspect. I think they appreciate the more laid-back atmosphere and community spirit.”
Plenty of challenges lie ahead — city leaders and Lawrence Group officials would like to see controlled population growth to go with the tourists and visitors, but to do that requires addressing things like career opportunities, expanding services and housing. The growth of high-paying jobs in the steel mills nearby satisfies part of that equation, but other things are harder to solve without disrupting the small-town atmosphere that’s such a potent tourist draw.
One thing is for certain: everyone, be they newly-relocated or rooted five generations deep, is committed to seeing things through.
“You know, I’m not a big spotlight guy, I’d rather keep my head down and make sure everybody’s happy and there’s no problems and fix the potholes,” said Bell. “One thing [Galen] Lawrence really wanted was, he wanted to help the town but not to run the town; he wanted the citizens to have their own mayor and work together, but not under his thumb.
“So, I let The Lawrence Group do their thing and help when I can. They’ve brought a lot of revitalization to town while I try to keep my head down and keep the town functioning, making sure it remains a good place to raise a family, which it is.”
Norbert Mede added, “One of the things people ask is, ‘Why Wilson? Why is this town unique? Why is it a favorable spot?’ I think it’s that combination of the past and the future. Not so much about the present yet, but really the idea of growth and potential. It’s not a false promise when we say we’re going to build this town out and it’s going to be great, beautiful, livable.
“We’re here to get the job done, but I also think it’s important that those promises be delivered. There’s a few of these towns in the United States where they’ve been company towns, and something has changed with that status, and they’ve gone to the wayside. This one will not.”