My husband and I recently took an impromptu trip to the small Delta town of Wilson, Arkansas. Our original plan was to visit Memphis but we were detoured by the realization that the place that we wanted to visit in Memphis wasn’t open.
History of Wilson, Arkansas
Lee Wilson was the original owner of the town. He founded Lee Wilson and Company in 1885 and was commonly known as “Boss Lee.” The company stayed within the same family for the next 125 years.
The business started as a sawmill. As the land was cleared farther and farther away from the mill, logging camps had to be established to house the workers. Several towns in the county, including Wilson, started out as a logging camp.
Most sawmill owners abandoned their land after it was logged out, but Wilson decided to start farming. He also bought railroads to more easily export his crops and bring people in to work the fields. In addition to farms and trains he also owned banks and mercantiles and cotton gins.
In this way Wilson, Arkansas was developed. It became a company town where the farm workers and other employees were paid in money that could only be used at the stores and amenities in the town. We were told the local bank still had some of the company “money.”
The town of Wilson acquired its unique European Tudor-style look after Lee Wilson Jr. returned from his honeymoon in England. He and his wife were enthralled with the Tudor style buildings that they had seen there and decided that all new buildings in Wilson would be in the Tudor style and the existing buildings would be retooled and redecorated to match.
This makes the town of Wilson quite an anomaly in the Delta region! It comes seemingly out of nowhere in the best of ways. I began to call the style Wilson Tudor while we were there.
Fast Forward to the town of Wilson, Arkansas in 2010
The Wilson family land holdings were purchased by The Lawrence Group, headed by the late Gaylon Lawrence Sr and his son Gaylon Lawrence Jr. The Lawrence Group acquired the farmland and virtually all of the commercial real estate holdings on the acreage including much of the town of Wilson.
Since 2012 Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has dedicated a considerable amount of time and money to the revitalization of the small town. The Lawrence Group moved their world headquarters to Wilson, Arkansas and started a school in the town.
They have also partnered with the state of Arkansas to move the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park into their new state of the art space on the town square, have opened the Wilson Cafe and are attempting to bring in more small businesses to the town.
We spoke at length with one of the people helping to recreate the town and learned that there are plans to renovate the old theater next door to the cafe for music, movies, theater, concerts, and other events. They will be adding the Louis Hotel which will have 16 rooms and be located above the grocery store right on the square.
There is hope to eventually add another hotel in a building across the highway and they also envision a bakery with good crusty bread, a brewery, and more stores. There are plans for bike trails, and skeet shooting, as well as renovating the old Wilson School gym into a fitness facility.
It was fascinating to listen to all the ideas. We were told that The Lawrence Group hopes to make Wilson not just a tourist destination or a stop for people on their way to and from Memphis, but also a great place for the current and future residents to live.
And…What about Wilson, Arkansas Now?
As you can see there are big, big dreams for Wilson. Will they happen? I hope so, but I don’t know. However, I can tell you what there is to do there currently!
Where to eat
You only have one choice if you want to eat in town, The Wilson Cafe. The Wilson Cafe is open for lunch and dinner with brunch on Saturday and Sunday. We ate there for dinner on a Friday evening and brunch Saturday morning and were very pleased both times. The prices are unexpectedly high for a small town, but the food is also unexpectedly good! This is not your average small town cafe.
The exterior is, of course, Wilson Tudor style and the interior has been decorated in what I would call modern farmhouse and they call rustic industrial. It is sleek and soothing in shades of grey, white, and black with a bank of windows across one side and a bar along the other. Award winning chef Roberto Barth runs and operates the cafe as head chef.
The food is farm to table as much as possible, there is a fully stocked bar and a very good wine list. The servers were exceptionally pleasant and also knowledgeable about the food. Our meals here were very good and the experience and atmosphere were great as well.
Be sure and check the opening times and days before you go!
Where to stay
Until the hotel Louis is completed your only option is to stay at an Airbnb. We selected this cute 2 bedroom shotgun style home. Like the restaurant it was probably a little pricy for the area but extremely nice and we really enjoyed our stay here. Just next door was this slightly larger 3 bedroom craftsman style home. It was adorable as well!
Both of these homes are within walking distance of the Cafe and the town square. Although, I will admit that we usually drove as there was always ample parking on the square.
Things to do in Wilson, AR
Downtown Memphis is only about 45 miles away from Wilson. If you want to visit the big city but stay in a small town then Wilson might be a good option for you. However, there is more to do in Wilson than you might expect!
Attend an event in Wilson
One of the things that the town is doing to re-create itself is hosting different events.
Weekly Wine Tastings
Wilson has weekly wine tastings held in a variety of locations around town. We attended a wine tasting on the Friday night we arrived. It was in a pretty, brick and glass, back room at the cafe. The tastings vary in price depending on the wines but our tasting was “white wines around the world.” We were able to try 7 white wines for a price of only $10 per person. We thought that this was a great deal and we really enjoyed some of the selections.
We met a fun couple from Wilson who were about our age and life stage at the wine tasting and ended up having dinner with them afterward at the cafe.
Great wine, great food, and making new friends always makes for a perfect evening!
Wilson Wine Dinners
Another event on offer is a monthly multi-course, wine-paired dinner! These are held in unique locations in and around Wilson. In fact, the monthly dinner was going to be the very next night after our evening in WIlson. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay for it.
We did learn that this particular dinner was going to be staged in the old theater that I mentioned above and we were invited in to see the venue. The theater is still undergoing renovation, but I think it will be a really interesting spot for a variety of events upon its completion.
Other events in Wilson
Keep an eye on Wilson for some future events. They are planning some Halloween activities and on November 26, 2020 there will be a “turkey trot” 5K fun run. Wilson often has music oriented events but because this is 2020 many of these have been cancelled.
I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with in the future!
It won’t take you long to see the town, but definitely amble around the square, observe the architecture, cut through the manicured front lawn, say hey to the people you pass and feel yourself slip into a relaxed state of mind. You might even find yourself wishing you lived in a small town!
The Hampson Archeological Museum State Park
This small state park is located across the square from the Wilson cafe. You can read more about our visit to the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park here. We really enjoyed this small but excellent museum. I tend to enjoy museums that are easy to navigate and very tightly focused. This one fits the bill.
The museum has only been housed in this state of the art facility for two years. The town of Wilson partnered with the state of Arkansas to build a new building to house the artifact collection of local amateur archeologist Dr. Hampson. The building perfectly matches the Wilson Tudor of the rest of the square, but inside it is modern and sparkling new.
Visit the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Nearby Dyess
The boyhood home of Johnny Cash is in the nearby town of Dyess which has a fascinating history. The 20 minute drive from Wilson, Arkansas will take you through the gorgeous Delta farmland.
Even if you don’t think that you are a Johnny Cash fan this is an interesting stop as the town was created during the depression as part of the WPA in order to allow impoverished farmers a chance to own their land.
The Cash family was one of those who applied and were given a home and 40 acres to farm. Johnny Cash was raised here from the age of three until he graduated from high school. We really enjoyed our visit to the boyhood home of Johnny Cash and the town of Dyess.
Dyess also holds an annual music festival in October, called the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival Wilson would be a good place to stay if you plan to attend that festival as offerings for lodging in Dyess are limited.
Visit the shops that are currently in Wilson
There are a few shops currently in Wilson. They are hoping to attract more over the next years.
White’s Mercantile was founded by Holly Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. The store is located just across the highway from the town square. It describes itself as being a fresh take on the classic general store for the modern-day tastemaker.
The Wilson Pharmacy
This is a working pharmacy and gift store. They combine everyday essential items with lovely home decor.
This company was started in Alabama. They craft and carry high end hunting wear, hunting gear, and leather items. We were told by the store owner that they will soon add fleece items to their collection. Although much of the collection is sold online or at other retailers, Wilson is home to the brand’s flagship store.
If you are in Wilson on a Wednesday stop by the Grange and go to the Farmer’s Market. In addition to produce and flowers the market carries baked goods. It also features other products from a variety of venders such as Sassy’s Pepper Jelly. The Grange is a hub for Wilson’s agricultural and cooking classes as well as other events.
The Delta School
The Delta School was founded in 2014. Gaylon Lawrence believes that the rejuvenation of the area must start with education. We drove by and the place is beautiful! I took the time to read about the school and it sounds like a exciting educational model. I suspect that it will be attractive to both parents and their children.
Great River Road
You will know you are on the Great River Road when you see the steamboat pilot wheel signs in green and white along with the road signs. The Great River Road is a National Scenic Byway which follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. I should say that it follows the course of the Mississippi River as closely as it can. The levee system in Arkansas keeps the river from being visible along the road through much of the state.
The Great River Road goes right through WIlson, Arkansas. If you are traveling the Great River Road National Scenic Byway then Wilson is definitely a place you should stop. Even if you aren’t traveling the road it might be worthwhile to drive it for a few miles in either direction outside of WIlson to see the agricultural landscape, how the river has changed, and perhaps learn a little bit about the history and musical heritage of the area.
The Future of Wilson, Arkansas
At Wilson they pride themselves on being a small town with a storied past and an exciting future.
I don’t know what the future of the town holds, but I do believe that it is a town to watch!
Thanks for stopping by!