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The wizard of Wilson

A wealthy farm magnate has poured millions into the tiny town, bringing renewal and progress. Not many are complaining. But some would like a better sense of the motives of the man behind the curtain.


THE WIZARD: The Lawrence Group, led by Gaylon Lawrence Jr., bought most of the commercial property in Wilson and all of the surrounding farmland in 2010.
  • THE WIZARD: The Lawrence Group, led by Gaylon Lawrence Jr., bought most of the commercial property in Wilson and all of the surrounding farmland in 2010.

No matter which side of the Mississippi River you're on, the Delta has never been a place where good news was in heavy supply. For all but the wealthiest, fortunes mostly peaked there around the time mule teams were replaced by chugging tractors, and have been on a steady slide since. 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 Cafe 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. Unseen in the air, the town's free Wi-Fi waits for someone strolling along Park Street to get a hankering to watch a cute cat video on her cell phone. Last spring, when the mosquitoes got out of hand, a crop duster buzzed the town twice a week, spraying, and a pickup truck with new fogging equipment in the back purred up and down the quiet streets. In the shadow of the flagpole dedicated to Robert E. Lee Wilson, builder and founder, the grass on the square is manicured, push-mown weekly, the clippings bagged, not a blade out of place. Down the street, dirt work has started for the new Hampson Museum, built to house a unique collection of Late Mississippian Period Native American artifacts unearthed in the area. It'll be open later this year. And every once in a while, a private helicopter hops the Mississippi River from Memphis and whirs to a touchdown in Wilson, depositing the man most responsible for it all: Gaylon Lawrence Jr.

Since 2010, The Lawrence Group, a company founded by his late father, Gaylon Lawrence Sr., has owned all the farmland around Wilson for miles in every direction, along with 90 percent of the commercial real estate in town. It was the latest jewel for an agri-based empire that controls farming operations in five states, huge citrus groves in Florida, several banks, and USAir Conditioning Distributor, the world's largest privately held distributor of heating and air conditioning equipment.

Though many residents feared what might become of Wilson once the Wilson family sold the town they had owned since the 1880s, since 2012 Lawrence has poured untold millions into Wilson, bringing in fresh faces with new ideas, bankrolling passion projects like the resurrected and meticulously renovated Wilson Cafe, and generally putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to revitalizing one little corner of the Delta. That includes moving the world headquarters of The Lawrence Group to the renovated former offices of Lee Wilson and Co., just off the town square, bringing in over a dozen executives and support personnel who live and work in town full time.

With Big River Steel going in just north of town, Wilson finds itself in the enviable position of being poised for great things in an area where great things are almost unheard of. Even those who questioned all the changes Lawrence brought to town in the beginning will tell you now that the Lawrence era, less than five years old at this point, has been a boon.

Still, given that most of the eggs in Wilson are resting in the basket of Gaylon Lawrence Jr., some people puzzle over his motives. The theories as to why he's spent so much time and treasure on the town are numerous, even among those who work for him: maybe altruism, maybe a desire to give back to the region, maybe a tax write-off, maybe some life-altering moment of clarity about his own mortality and legacy after his father's death in July 2012. Whatever the truth of it, several people we spoke with are a little perplexed by the question that seems the most obvious: Why Wilson?

AN ENGLISH VILLAGE IN THE DELTA: Many of the buildings in Wilson, including the Wilson Cafe, are Tudor-style. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • AN ENGLISH VILLAGE IN THE DELTA: Many of the buildings in Wilson, including the Wilson Cafe, are Tudor-style.

Company town

Wilson was unique long before The Lawrence Group came to town. Founded by Robert E. Lee Wilson in 1886 to support a sawmill operation, Wilson eventually grew into the greatest of the great "company towns." As Lee Wilson and Co. drained the swamps, cleared the stumps and pivoted to agriculture on an epic scale, the town of Wilson soon became the hub of a spoked wheel of activity and influence, perched at the center of over 60 square miles of rich farmland in Mississippi County. At one time, Lee Wilson and Co. was the biggest cotton producer in the whole South. Production on that scale required an army of workers — reportedly over 11,000 at one point — including farm hands, school teachers, doctors, dentists, carpenters, mechanics, electricians and the employees of a fully staffed veterinary clinic to care for the thousands of huge plow mules required to work the land in the days before mechanized agriculture. Uptown in Wilson, workers could spend company-printed scrip in the town's barbershop, beauty shop, dry cleaner, grocery store, gas station, clothing stores, movie theater, tavern or cafe. From their wood-paneled headquarters on Park Street, just off the town square, the Wilson family owned and ran everything, lock, stock and barrel, until Wilson was incorporated in 1959. Even after that, the family retained the vast majority of the town's commercial real estate, and a near Yoknapatawphian level of control. A member of the Wilson family or a close associate, for example, was always the mayor.

The town looks like no other place in Arkansas as well. According to family lore, family scion R.E.L. "Roy" Wilson II went to England for his honeymoon and came back crazy for English architecture, soon constructing the magnificent Tudor-style mansion called Wildwood House, completed in 1928, 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, including the bank, post office, cafe and gas station. The rest of the buildings received Tudor-inspired brick facades, with arched colonnades and steep-sloped wood shake roofs. To come upon an English village sweltering a half-mile from the Mississippi River levee can be a little surreal.

That's the way it was until 2010, when the Wilson family announced it had reached a deal to sell its holdings in the area, including the town and one of the last great sections of contiguous farmland in the Delta, to The Lawrence Group.

Steve Wilson is the great-grandson of town founder R.E.L. Wilson. Now 68 and living in Memphis, Wilson said that the decision to sell was made because more recent generations of the Wilson family were increasingly disinterested in living in Wilson, investing in the upkeep on the town and running the family farm. Rather than allow their holdings to eventually be sold by those who knew nothing about farming, Wilson said, the decision was made to sell while his generation was still able to do so.

Wilson said that while he had an asking price in mind — the former holdings of Lee Wilson and Co. reportedly sold to The Lawrence Group for $110 million — he was also mindful about the fate of the town. The Lawrence family, he said, vowed that they would look after Wilson.

"[Gaylon Lawrence Sr.] said there's nobody in this world that is going to take care of what you're entrusting us to take care of," Wilson said. "And, by golly, he told it like it was. I have never seen a Delta town become resurrected like that town has."

A big part of that resurrection has been the work of town planner John Faulkner, who Lawrence brought in to oversee the revitalization. Formerly an educator who taught art and theater to the children of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. at the private Ensworth School in Nashville, Tenn., Faulkner has had a hand in shaping nearly everything that has happened in Wilson since 2012, from crafting the vision for The Delta School to picking the green paint for the town's trim.

"I am a visual arts person, so I've always been a project-related kind of guy," he said. "I've often told people that I was born a mechanic and became an artist. So I have some understanding of how things are built and made. I wasn't completely a fish out of water that way. Being a visual artist and working in ceramics and woodworking and metalworking, I respect the trades and sort of knew how to do that."

Faulkner said that when he first came to town, Wilson was physically in bad shape, with many of the buildings there shot through with rot. The past three years, he said, have been about near constant upkeep.

A NEW TOWN: Town planner John Faulkner has overseen the revitalization of Wilson.
  • A NEW TOWN: Town planner John Faulkner has overseen the revitalization of Wilson.

That includes efforts to reach out to locals and keep the community informed about changes. His approach, he said, has always been that it's much easier to partner with the town than to surprise. With the City Council, he's helping craft a master plan for development, and he oversaw the installation of the town's free Wi-Fi, a low-cost system using repurposed servers that he said could easily serve as a model for other struggling communities looking to bring Internet service to their citizens. In partnership with the Malco Theaters chain, he's overseeing the renovation of the Wilson Theater, which will be a multipurpose space that can host meetings, films, concerts and stage plays. Even though the accelerating change is reaping rewards for locals, there was some anxiety about it in the beginning.

"The people who love Wilson and love the history, they support it, because it's very logical to see that more activity and more renewal in a little town means growth and prosperity," he said. "If you ask the landowners about their housing and the value of their housing, they're very thrilled."

As for why Lawrence is putting so much into Wilson, Faulkner said that when the purchase of the land was made, it was simply about getting a large piece of contiguous farmland for cultivation.

"I think at first he thought of the village and all those buildings and all that real estate was a liability, but he's changed his thinking about all that," Faulkner said. "He knows that Wilson itself, the village, is an asset to the land around it, particularly if you improve it in terms of housing and infrastructure, the arts, education and all that."

Wilson Mayor Becton Bell agrees that the changes in town have been positive. Bell, the first Wilson mayor who was not a member of the Wilson family or one of their close associates, has served since the fall of 2013. He said people in town were worried about the future from the moment they heard the Wilson family planned to sell, fearful they might wind up with an absentee landlord with no interest in keeping up Wilson.

"I thought, big investment group coming in here to buy the farm, and there goes the town," he said. "But it's really been the opposite. Gaylon and [his wife] Lisa both fell in love with the town, and they've really been a blessing to Wilson."

Bell's children attend The Delta School. "They're not just sitting at a desk, looking at a board," he said. "Through all these processes, they're learning math and science, but they're learning it with their hands. My kids don't even want to come home at the end of the day when we go to pick them up. It's pretty amazing."

Bell says many suspect that The Lawrence Group "pulls the strings" at the Wilson City Council. Most city employees, including the waterworks crew and the garbage crew, are employees of The Lawrence Group, contracted to the city. "But typically," Bell said, "we don't even see anybody from The Lawrence Group at our City Council meetings. We're pretty independent, and have gotten more independent since I became the mayor."

With the town growing and Big River Steel being constructed seven miles north, Bell says, he could see Wilson going from a population of 900 to 1,500 or 2,000 in coming years. In a grove of trees near a man-made lake on the edge of town, ground is being broken for luxury home lots, apparently in hopes of attracting executives from Big River or attendant businesses. As for Gaylon Lawrence, Bell said he's never found him to be anything other than kind, generous and wholly invested in bringing about a bright future for Wilson.

"He's really wanted to be a part of the community," Bell said. "He doesn't want to control the community. He's mindful about anything he does, and about making sure the City Council and myself are on board with their plans. For the most part, it's been a pretty pleasant experience."

'What have I done?'

There is a moment in the stories of all the newcomers brought into Wilson when they deftly sidestep the issue of what they must have been offered, in either salary or creative freedom, to get them to uproot their families and move to a tiny Delta town in the middle of nowhere. Talking to those brought in since 2012 to help lead a cultural renaissance, you learn to listen for the beat when they go from skeptical or an outright "no damn way" to loading the moving truck, bound for Mississippi County.

Joe Cartwright, who runs the Wilson Cafe with his fiancee, Shari Haley, was working at the upscale Memphis eatery The Elegant Farmer in 2012 when a call came in on the answering machine, saying there was an opportunity for a young chef over in Wilson. With family in nearby Turrell, about 10 miles south of Wilson, Cartwright figured it had something to do with reopening the Wilson Cafe. Built in the town's ubiquitous Tudor style, the cafe had been shuttered for 10 years by then. Still, Cartwright was immediately interested. After a 15-year career in high-end Memphis restaurants, he and Shari had settled in what he described as a comfortable house in Southhaven, Miss., "with a big yard, a nice garden, a swimming pool and two dogs," and his dream was to run a small cafe in a small town.

"I had assumed that it would remain a dream," he said. "Being able to support yourself at a small-town restaurant and live in the country, they're almost mutually exclusive desires. A restaurant needs volume. It needs clientele. It needs people to support it. And where I wanted to live was not necessarily in a very densely populated area."

He and Shari say they're invested in Wilson for the long haul and hope to raise a family there. Part of the reason, no doubt, is the cafe itself. We're comfortable in saying there's nothing like it east of Little Rock or west of Memphis. The building is not just spiffed up, but painstakingly renovated inside and out to an amazing degree of detail, every fixture and cup, chair and napkin, lamp and sink meant to evoke a classic small-town diner while being a study in simple, understated class. The bar in the back is a watering hole worthy of a swanky Memphis hotel. Even the restrooms are a marvel of low-key elegance. One person in town we talked with heard the tab for the cafe renovation alone was north of $600,000. That's hearsay, but one might well believe it when he walks in.

Open since December 2013, the cafe has shown a profit in recent months, Cartwright said, but it took a long time to get there. Part of that, Cartwright admits, had to do with his trying to start out with a menu that was something of a shock to local systems, both in terms of complexity and price. He's passionate about his food, sourcing premium ingredients like certified Angus beef, organic produce and choice domestic seafood. The kitchen makes everything, from the hush puppies to the whipped cream on the bread pudding, from scratch. We can attest, the food is delicious, consisting mostly of upscale takes on classic diner fare. The fried catfish and fries, in particular, were perfect and delectable. Still, convincing locals about his style, philosophy and price point — he's got a $9 cheeseburger and an $11 chef salad on the lunch menu, for example — has been a chore, one that initially required both some education and some scaling back of aspirations on Cartwright's part.

LEARNED TO COOK GREEN BEANS: Wilson Cafe chef Joe Cartwright, here with his fiancee Shari Haley, had to change his cooking style a bit to please Wilson palates. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • LEARNED TO COOK GREEN BEANS: Wilson Cafe chef Joe Cartwright, here with his fiancee Shari Haley, had to change his cooking style a bit to please Wilson palates.

"It was hard to convince people that what we're trying to get you to buy is worth what we're asking you to pay for it," he said. "When we opened, we came in with this menu, and it was a mid-town Memphis menu. We were going to crush it! Man, we had to start backpedaling immediately. That's not to say we had to dumb anything down, but we had to adjust to the regional demand."

Cartwright said that breaking even has been validating, adding that he knew from the start that he couldn't lean on the financial backing of The Lawrence Group forever. The mission has always been to be self-sustaining, he said, even though it has undoubtedly been nice to know there's a safety net should the cafe hit a rough patch, something unheard of in the restaurant industry. He has a staff of 20 people working for him these days, all of them making a living wage. The steady paychecks have helped at least two of his employees get off public assistance.

Most every day Lawrence is in town, he comes in and eats lunch there, receiving a ticket at the end of his meal just like everybody else, paying just like everybody else, along with a handsome tip. Why wouldn't he? Cartwright said. He's just a guy. Cartwright said we'd just missed him, in fact, when the reporter and photographer for the Arkansas Times came in for lunch. Given that our request for an interview with the Wizard of Wilson was gently declined by Lawrence's PR team, that was frustrating. Asked why he thinks Lawrence is spending the amount of money and energy he has around town, Cartwright, like most, can only speculate.

"He has said that he's a farmer," he said. "Not to speak in cliches, but he really considers all this as planting seeds for the future. He wants us to be leaders of the community. He wants us to be integrated into what's going on here. I guess you could say that he didn't make any obvious mistakes with the people he brought to town. I think there's a reason for that. I think he wants kind of on the younger spectrum, people who have creative vision and share his vision for what this place can be. I think when it comes down to it, that's all he wants: what's best for everybody."

Across the street from the cafe is Wilson Gardens, the organic produce farm centered around The Grange, the artful, gleaming metal building meant to suggest a tin shed. Built on the site of Lee Wilson and Co.'s vast former mule barns, the garden is in its second year, and will have over 20 acres in production by the time the tomatoes are ripe in July. They've been given over 100 acres, so there is plenty of room for growth.

The garden is the domain of farm director Leslie Wolverton, 31, a near-blur of constant movement, perpetually crowned with a canvas ball cap that says: "Make Cornbread, Not War." Two years ago, Wolverton was living in Oxford, Miss., working on an established organic farming operation there, when she got a text from her old customer Joe Cartwright asking if she would be interested in starting a farm in small-town Arkansas.

"I thought, 'No,' " she said. "I was in Oxford. We had art galleries and sushi and movies and music."

Even so, she was eventually persuaded to come take a meeting with John Faulkner on a bitterly cold day. Her story takes a deft little jump, and then she's suddenly in Wilson, breaking ground for Wilson Gardens. These days, she's got a staff of 12, a new Ford farm truck, a nice office and educational space in The Grange, and near-total freedom to plant, experiment or try anything she wants as long as it's delicious and innovative. Though Wilson Gardens launched a well-received produce subscription program in its first year and is expanding its acreage to meet demand from restaurants in Memphis and elsewhere, she said the garden has been running in the red since the beginning.

"A lot of farms don't [make a profit] their first couple years," she said. "We're just over 2 years old, not even planted. We'll be 2 years in the ground this August. We've grown at a tremendous rate. If this were me and my little chunk of change starting a farm, I wouldn't do it this way. But we're lucky we're in the position we can. But, no, we don't break even yet."

Like Cartwright, Wolverton said that coming into the small town with new ideas was an interesting experience, especially so because she was bringing new farming concepts to an area built on agriculture. Having been born in a town smaller than Wilson, she knew there was a fine line to walk.

ORGANIC GARDENER: Leslie Wolverton first said she wasn't interested in starting a farm in Arkansas. After a visit, however, she started Wilson Gardens. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • ORGANIC GARDENER: Leslie Wolverton first said she wasn't interested in starting a farm in Arkansas. After a visit, however, she started Wilson Gardens.

"You never want to seem as if you're pointing a finger," she said. "This whole region has built its livelihood in a large part on commodity, conventional agriculture. So when somebody comes in to say there's a different way to do it, you want to be very careful not to say, 'There's a better way to do it.' You have to be sensitive to what people have known their entire lives."

Her goal, she said, is to promote agritourism, commerce and education in Wilson, while doing what she called "meaningful work" in the area of organic farming. Like Joe Cartwright at the cafe, she knows that Wilson Gardens has to eventually be economically self-sufficient, though — also like Cartwright — she's been given no timeline for when that has to happen. This year's growing season, she says, will be a strong indicator of economic viability in the short term.

Wolverton said that while Lawrence could have left Wilson to die on the vine like so many small towns in the Delta, he has clearly invested what she called an incomprehensible, astronomical amount of money into the town and ideas like hers. Whatever's driving that investment, she said, she doesn't believe it's the hope for a return on investment, at least not in the financial sense.

"Far be it from me to be a business whiz, but I don't see how," she said. "Some people want a legacy. Who knows?"

The most surprising transplant brought in to Wilson is probably Jenifer Fox, who oversees The Delta School. Formerly a school administrator whose specialty was turning around failing private schools, the Harvard-educated teacher worked all over the U.S. and overseas before spinning the things she learned over 30 years in education into a career as a speaker and author. Her 2008 book, "Your Child's Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them," has since been reprinted in six languages. Fox was living in Dallas when she got a call from a consultant for The Lawrence Group, who was looking for someone to build a new kind of school from the ground up in Wilson.

"They told me about it, and I was like, 'There's no way I'm going to Arkansas.' " Fox said. "They ended up getting me to come out here and have a look. There was nothing here. Having a look was like, 'great.' But the vision and the excitement and the energy around the people who were working on this project was captivating to me." Like the rest of the newcomers, her story takes a little jump and she's moving to town.

Now finishing up its first year, The Delta School has an enrollment of 45 students ages 4 to 13. It's aiming to double enrollment next year, with plans for further growth, including a high school. A proponent of "strengths-based," education, Fox has built The Delta School as a model of hands-on learning. Out on the broad front lawn of Wildwood House, there are two beautiful, long-roofed classrooms now, where kids learn by doing.

"Mostly what is happening is people in school taking in a lot of information and then spitting it back, saying they understand it," she said. "Our model is to take the knowledge and then apply it to how you'd actually use it. We have two important spaces for doing that. One is the school farm, and one is our makers' program. Of those two programs, we have all the classes doing projects."

LUNCH AT THE DELTA SCHOOL: Experienced school administrator Jennifer Fox (standing in blue) was recruited to start and run a new "hands-on" private school in Wilson. Forty-five students are currently enrolled. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • LUNCH AT THE DELTA SCHOOL: Experienced school administrator Jennifer Fox (standing in blue) was recruited to start and run a new "hands-on" private school in Wilson. Forty-five students are currently enrolled.

As an example, Fox said, the kids might decide to do a study on water quality in Wilson. From there, the kids will sample the water, possibly bringing in experts from the local waterworks to talk about what goes into making clean drinking water before reaching conclusions.

"They learn what it takes to run a water system in a town," she said. "They're learning what it takes to clean that system. They're learning about the water table. You can start to imagine. It brings all the knowledge in, and now they've got a real problem to solve. They're engaged longer, and they can make an improvement in the town."

The student body at The Delta School, Fox said, is economically diverse, thanks to a scholarship program spearheaded by Lawrence, which calls on wealthy Delta farm families to sponsor students' $10,000 yearly tuition. Fox said the average cost to educate a student at the school per year is $25,000. She said over the next 10 years — and she is, she says, willing to stick it out in Wilson for that long — she hopes to prove there's a way to educate kids other than having them sit at desks and read textbooks.

"I've been given an opportunity to do what I want without the worries of money," she said. "I've gone to sleep every night for 30 years worrying what was going to happen because we couldn't afford it. Schools don't ever make money. I never worry about that anymore, and I'm free to create the kind of educational program I believe in. I have the best school administrator job in the country. I'm convinced of that."

Fox said she has found Lawrence to be a man with a genuine love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. She believes Lawrence is sinking so much money and human capital into the town for purely altruistic reasons, a notion that squares with the quote Lawrence gave the New York Times for its story on Wilson in January 2014, with Lawrence telling a reporter: "At first you are thinking, 'How can I get this off my back?' But then you look around and think, how can I be a catalyst?"

"I think what happened was they weren't interested in this town," Fox said, "but in the middle of the land deal, his father died. I think he thought, and I've heard this, he thought, 'What have I done? I'm just inheriting my father's hard work,' which he contributed to, so I don't want to say that. But I think his dad died and he thought, 'What's my life about? What am I doing? I've got all of this.' So he found this way to make a legacy for himself."

How to make a meatloaf

Though the fruits of Gaylon Lawrence's investments in Wilson are impossible to deny at this point, that doesn't mean everybody in town is completely on board, even now. Change is worrisome, especially in small towns. Talking to folks who grew up in Wilson, even those who knew it when it was a company town, there's often the nerve-wracking question of the larger plan, which nobody but Lawrence seems to be able to see.

Runella Clemons, the assistant superintendent of Rivercrest Public Schools, has lived in Wilson for over 50 years. She said that while some of those brought in by Lawrence have been friendly and eager to become a part of Wilson, others have been more aloof.

"Some of those people I have never met," she said. "I've tried to make connections. I remember when I first came here, I made my connections through being involved in things in the community, such as at the churches and different activities in the schools. That hasn't happened ... . You never want things to be an us and a them. You want it to be a 'we.' And it's a little more difficult to do that when you're not in the same realm of everyday life."

SEEDS OF WILSON: The company town was founded by the Wilson family in the 1880s. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • SEEDS OF WILSON: The company town was founded by the Wilson family in the 1880s.

As a lifelong educator, Clemons said she wishes there was a stronger connection between The Delta School and the local public school system. She knows children who attend The Delta School, and has heard their excitement about the hands-on teaching style there. Beyond that, however, she only knows what she's read in various articles that have appeared about the revitalization of Wilson. Clemons said that she has a sense Lawrence fell in love with Wilson and the area, and hopes his commitment to the town remains strong.

"I was up at the park this morning, early, and looking at the dates when the original Mr. Wilson came," she said. "I wondered, what in the world did people here think when he came in and started cutting the cypress trees and getting rid of the swamps? I wonder if they went through these same thoughts? This isn't the way we've lived! What is this man doing? It's somewhat of that type of change in a different century."

Next door to The Lawrence Group at the Wilson Public Library, librarian Linda Dawson is another who wonders what the future will look like. A friend of the Wilson family whose mother met her father while working as a waitress at the Wilson Cafe, Dawson's lived in the area most of her adult life, and serves as the recorder/treasurer on the Wilson City Council. Like Jenifer Fox, she saw a change of direction once Gaylon Lawrence Sr. passed away, something she believes is somehow tied to Lawrence Jr.'s interest in revitalization.

"From talking to some of the other business people here in town, they said that Gaylon Sr. came and talked to them, and his concern was: I'm in farming. Having a pharmacy and a grocery store are not as important to me, so I'm going to talk to you, maybe, about how we're going to handle that," she said. "But after he passed away, Gaylon Jr. became like, let's put a coat of paint on everything. Let's get the restaurant open."

Around the same time, she said, there was a town hall meeting with over 100 residents in attendance, where Lawrence invited residents to share what they would like to see happen in town. Though a lot of the ideas put forth probably sounded like pie in the sky at the time, like reopening the Wilson Cafe and the movie theater, Lawrence listened, got to work and quickly came through on many of the things discussed that night, apparently with money as no object.

Still, change has not come easy. Dawson said that when Fox and her team first came to town, they were prone to telling locals, "We're here to create brilliant minds." That stuck in a lot of peoples' craws: What did our minds ever do before you came? Dawson said she had to correct a newcomer who came into the library talking brilliant minds one day, pointing out that the local school district was already creating brilliant minds long before, including doctors, judges, educators and a couple of NASA engineers.

"That was kind of the philosophy when they first came in here: We're going to save you," Dawson said. "It's always been, as I've grown up here, that everybody's welcome in Wilson. We love for new people to move here. But you're coming here to join us. You're not coming here to save us. That's kind of the philosophy that we got in the very beginning. You're going to run into a few people that are still going to feel that way."

Dawson, jovial and prone to dropping sly winks as she talks, laughed as she recalled the early days of the newly reopened Wilson Cafe. Though Joe Cartwright has since become a friend and has learned to meet local palates in the middle, she says it took an intervention.

"We finally had to say Joe, you've got to change your menu," she said. "Nobody is going to come back and eat with you if you don't change your menu. He did. He made a change. But, yeah, some of his cooking during lunch? People would come back and say: 'We need to teach that boy how to cook green beans! Those beans weren't done. I'd have people come in the library and say, 'I just had lunch at the cafe, and honey, we need to teach him how to make a meatloaf.' I'd say, 'He's a chef! He's not a cook!' "

Dawson's property values have doubled, and nobody can complain about that. She's glad to have a place to eat in town again, even if it's out of the price range of some, and she's excited about the influx of new people into town. But she can't help but be concerned. With property in demand and the steel mill soon to open, gentrification is on her mind. Too, though she hasn't seen anything that would lead her to question Lawrence's commitment to Wilson, she wonders what would happen if his enthusiasm for the town wanes.

"If he gets tired and wants to move on somewhere else, I've thought about that," she said. "I hope it never happens. But it's something you have to think about. What if Mr. Lawrence decides, well, I've done all I can do here. Let's move on now, back to Florida. Let's move on to California."

It would help, she said, if he'd just put his cards on the table and share his reasons for betting so much on Wilson, along with letting more longtime residents be a part of the big picture.

"I think a lot of people feel like they've been left out of what's going on," she said. "What are you building over here? Why are you doing this? ... If he'd just say: 'This is my plan. This is where I'm going.' It would help. 'I'm putting all this money into this community because it's where I'm going to make my home.' But he doesn't officially live here. He pays taxes, but he doesn't vote here. It's like he wants to be able to do what the Wilson family did, but when the Wilson family was in control, they'd always been in control. Nobody told them no, either."

WILSON GARDENS: The metal building serves as office, test kitchen and exhibition hall. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • WILSON GARDENS: The metal building serves as office, test kitchen and exhibition hall.


We were not granted an interview with Gaylon Lawrence Jr., but his staff did forward a single question to him on our behalf: "Why have you invested so much time, money and manpower into Wilson?"

The day after we returned to Little Rock from visiting the town, we received the following reply:

"In 2010, when we were afforded the opportunity to acquire the historic Lee Wilson & Company, 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 boot heel 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."

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