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24 hours in Wilson

A little bit of jolly old England.

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It's safe to say that there is no other town in the state quite like Wilson. Founded by Robert E. Lee Wilson in 1886, Wilson eventually grew into the hub of a plantation that once employed over 11,000 workers. The town and the land for miles in every direction was wholly owned by the Wilson family until 2010, when it was purchased as part of a deal with The Lawrence Group, a massive agri-business conglomerate owned by Gaylon Lawrence Sr. and Gaylon Lawrence Jr. While the town had been in decline for years, since the death of Gaylon Lawrence Sr. in 2012 Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has sunk millions into Wilson, renovating, building, improving and using his seemingly bottomless checkbook to attract visionary people to the area, then bankrolling their ideas. His goals seem unclear, but it has made Wilson a most peculiar small town, not to mention a bright spot of progress in the Delta.

Stroll through Stratford-on-Mississippi

According to Wilson family lore, R.E.L. "Roy" Wilson II, scion and heir apparent to the wealthy clan that owned the town, went to England for his honeymoon in the late 1920s and came back crazy for classic English architecture. He had plans drawn up and soon the magnificent Tudor-style mansion called Wildwood House, completed in 1928, was constructed on the edge of town. After Wildwood was finished, every commercial building built in Wilson for the next 40 years was constructed in the Tudor style. The rest of the buildings received Tudor-inspired brick facades and wood shake roofs. Meticulously renovated and restored since Lawrence came to town, the result is a passable facsimile of an English village, like something out of the Harry Potter series, a half-mile from the Mississippi River. 

UPSCALE : Wilson Cafe has style and substance.
  • UPSCALE : Wilson Cafe has style and substance.

Eat at the Wilson Cafe

The Wilson Cafe at 2 N. Jefferson St. had been shuttered for over 10 years when the Lawrence renaissance came rolling through in 2012. To run it and spearhead the renovation of the cafe, Lawrence hired chef Joe Cartwright away from upscale Memphis eatery The Elegant Farmer. You're not going to believe this, but these days the tiny cafe that seats a couple hundred people for lunch and dinner every week, tops, rivals any restaurant in Arkansas when it comes to decor and the quality of its fare. Inside, the place looks like something out of Architectural Digest, with every inch refurbished and every tile, cup, spoon, sink, light fixture and bit of trim carefully chosen to suggest an upscale take on a classic Delta diner of yore. The menu, meanwhile, reflects Cartwright's 15 years working in some of Memphis' best restaurants. Visit eatatwilson.com for a full menu and more information. Learn a new way of planting

Across the street from the cafe is Wilson Gardens, an organic produce farm. The gardens are run by Leslie Wolverton, formerly of Oxford, Miss., a veteran organic farmer who was given free rein to implement her ideas there. A building called The Grange serves as the offices of Wilson Gardens, but also a test kitchen, educational space and occasionally as a performance hall for music acts brought to town. Visit wilsongardens.com for more information. Shop!

WILSON GARDENS: Organic produce and The Grange, which features a test kitchen and educational space.
  • WILSON GARDENS: Organic produce and The Grange, which features a test kitchen and educational space.

Yes, there is shopping in Wilson that goes far beyond the small grocery store on the square. White's Mercantile, at 17 Cortez Kennedy Ave., in a renovated Tudor-style gas station, is the latest in a chain of chic shops with sister locations in Franklin and Nashville, Tenn. The brainchild of Nashville singer/songwriter Holly Williams (Hank Williams' granddaughter), the Mercantile is restored to picture-perfection, and chock-full of hip, Pinterest-ready items, from cookbooks to candy to crockery to soap, all personally selected by Williams.


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