I have a friend who grew up the son of sharecroppers in Mississippi County. He likes to talk about the culture shock that would occur decades ago when traveling down U.S. 61, also known as the Blues Highway. After passing dozens of sharecropper shacks, motorists would enter the company town of Wilson, shaded by majestic cottonwood trees. Its downtown businesses were housed in buildings designed in the English Tudor style.
If it were a Sunday, he told me, pastures on the edge of town would be filled with polo players in elegant white uniforms atop beautiful horses. The sharecropper shacks are gone these days. So is the polo, at least for now. But Wilson remains a different place from the rest of the Delta. Gaylon Lawrence Jr., one of the nation’s largest landowners, purchased the plantation from members of the Wilson family in 2010. Since then, he has spent millions of dollars converting Wilson into a model farm town.
Lawrence, who has been buying wineries along the West Coast, is now picking up the pace in Wilson. In May, The Louis, a 16-room boutique hotel, opened on the Wilson square. Lawrence has spared no expense, hiring the nationally known firm FODA Design to redesign a 100-year-old building.
FODA’s Jennifer Kleen told Garden & Gun magazine: “We wanted to speak to the cotton culture of the town, so we’ve layered in an industrial feel but kept it warm and comfortable. This place is going to be such a jewel because it will bring people in and give them a place to stop, rest and take in the town instead of just passing through.”
There are also five cottages that can be rented. Wilson’s developers expect to expand the number of cottages as news of this upscale Southern resort spreads nationwide.
The Louis is named after a French bulldog who would hang around the square during the early years of Lawrence’s ownership. There’s a Renaissance-style portrait of the bulldog behind the hotel’s front desk.
“Louis was the town’s concierge, so he had to be front and center greeting people again,” Kleen said.
I’m greeted warmly at a front desk made of compressed cotton encased in glass and topped with suede. My host is Tom Smith, who holds the title of senior vice president of inclusion, community and sustainability. Smith has broad experience in the hospitality business. He came to Wilson at the first of the year after working at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania. Prior to that, he managed a professional soccer stadium in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Kmiec, the Wilson CEO, was chief operating officer at Nemacolin. He earlier served as president and managing director of The Greenbrier, an iconic resort in West Virginia. He describes the modern version of Wilson as a place that’s focused on “hospitality, exquisite farm-to-table dining, design-centered placemaking and progressive education.”
Famous chef Todd Rogers came to Wilson at the first of the year with the title of vice president of culinary, farming and culture. Rogers spent the previous eight years as corporate executive chef at Watercolor and The Pearl along 30A in the Florida Panhandle. He once was executive chef at The Cloister on Sea Island in Georgia, one of the country’s most historic hotels. Rogers also worked at Nemacolin and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Naples, Fla., and Houston.
Steve Ouellette, a former food and beverage manager at The Greenbrier and at Old Edwards Inn & Spa in North Carolina, holds the title of vice president of leadership development, culture and culinary experience. He also arrived earlier this year.
John Tuck, the beverage manager, and I hit it off immediately since he once was bar manager at Tortilla Coast, a popular hangout on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. I lived in that neighborhood in the 1980s.
I visited with this group in an attempt to determine what brought them to a town of fewer than 1,000 residents in the flat fields of northeast Arkansas. They all seem to share Lawrence’s vision of creating a getaway that will draw people from across the country. I think of it as a Delta version of Blackberry Farm, which draws a high-dollar crowd to the mountains of Tennessee for fine dining, culinary classes, hiking and other forms of entertainment.
Smith put it this way: “The Louis is poised to become the ultimate getaway because there’s simply no other town as magical as Wilson.”
Just behind the check-in area is Staple, which has a marble bar and green leather chairs. Visitors can take part in Tuck’s regular bourbon-tasting sessions or sample wines from around the world, including the nine wineries Lawrence owns. Snacks served at the bar feature local products such as catfish and rice.
There’s another bar on the roof called Cottonwood. It was too hot to be on the roof when I was there, but it will be a wonderful place to view Delta sunsets once the weather cools.
Cottonwood also is used as an outdoor venue for meetings. Other meeting spaces at The Louis are Upland, the River Room and the City Room. The restroom on the first floor has merlot-colored tile to honor the wineries Lawrence owns in California.
“I wanted to put people out in Wilson’s sky,” Kleen said of Cottonwood. “The sunsets over the fields feel like they stretch on forever.”
My room has Peacock Alley bed linens and towels made from locally grown cotton. When I return from dinner at the Wilson Cafe, I discover that the bed has been turned down and cookies left in the room. Bath products are from Grown Alchemist. Still to come is a spa that will be known as Mend. It will offer an extensive menu of treatments when it opens next year.
I walked to the Wilson Cafe for dinner, but groups meeting at The Louis can have meals served at Staple or Cottonwood. Signature dishes include fried green tomato caprese with buffalo mozzarella and balsamic glaze, braised short ribs and potato gnocchi, blackened shrimp and cheese grits with tomato gravy, and chocolate croissant bread pudding with vanilla ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauce.
In addition to the spa, the developers of Wilson are adding an automobile museum known as Wilson Motor Club. It will be next door to the hotel in a space that once housed a grocery store. Lawrence’s collection includes a 1955 Aston Martin DB2 and a 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider.
On my walking tour of the square, I went into the Lee Wilson & Co. vault, which will be turned into a wine cellar that can be rented for special occasions. The former Wilson Theater has been transformed into a live music venue that hosts what’s known as the Wilson Music Series.
Breakfast the next morning was across the highway at The Grange at Wilson Garden. Coffee comes from Mountain Bird Coffee at Eureka Springs. Pastries are baked in Wilson. Fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables are grown at The Grange and sold there. On this day there’s okra, corn, watermelons and cantaloupes.
Earlier this year, Wilson entered into a partnership with Dixon Gallery & Gardens at Memphis for an artist-in-residence program. During 60-day residencies, artists showcase their work and visit with those who come into The Grange. Among the artists on the day I was there was John Ruskey of Clarksdale, Miss., a friend of many years who’s also known for the canoe trips he guides on the Mississippi River.
After breakfast, I visit Tin House Golf. The actual tin house, which has been turned into a luxurious clubhouse, was once the Lawrence family’s weekend retreat in Mississippi. It was trucked to Arkansas. Six holes of golf can now be played. With three approaches to each hole, a golfer can complete a full 18-hole round.
An 18-hole golf course will be added in a former cotton field across the road as part of a country club known as Alluvium. Home sites, intended to attract executives from Mississippi County’s burgeoning steel industry, will be built around the course. The 24 holes were designed by Brooks-Baine Golf, created in 1992 to offer design and consulting services to course developers. Clients have included Club Corp., Lincoln Property Co. and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Burt Baine left the company in 1997 and joined the PGA Tour as general manager of TPC Piper Glen in Charlotte, N.C. Baine later was general manager of TPC Southwind in Memphis. When he retired from that job, he and Mark Brooks decided to restart their business with headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Brooks, who was a three-time All-American golfer at the University of Texas, won the 1996 PGA Championship. He amassed a record number of 803 PGA Tour starts. Brooks won seven professional tournaments in his playing career and has designed numerous golf courses. Once again, Lawrence is sparing no expense.
“The term ‘links golf’ is overused, but Alluvium will be a Delta links golf course,” Brooks said. “We’re going to transform that old cotton field. I will go out on a limb and tell you that it will be an incredible transformation. It’s a flat field now, but it’s not going to be a boring golf course. We have a great team in place to work on this. There won’t be anything that will compare to it in this part of the country.”
With all that’s going on in Wilson, Baine says more and more permanent residents will move there. With good broadband, people can now work from anywhere. Baine and Brooks said they hope the course eventually will host junior golf events.
“You take pride in doing things that advance the sport,” Brooks said. “It’s nice to be a part of a state like Arkansas where the sport is growing.”
Wilson will even have a shooting sports club. The renowned Wildrose Kennels of Oxford, Miss., has worked to develop a shooting preserve on a nearby island known as Pecan Point.
There’s also a growing list of sophisticated retailers that call Wilson home. These include Holly Williams’ (Hank Williams Sr.’s granddaughter) White’s Mercantile and outdoor clothier Tom Beckbe.
Gaylon Lawrence Sr. grew up working alongside his sister, mother and father on the family farm north of Pollard in Clay County. He later purchased farms in southeast Missouri. Gaylon Jr. worked on those farms as a boy. The younger Lawrence told Nashville Business Journal that he’s “an accumulator” who prefers investing in “good, solid assets that I can own for a lifetime.”
He wanted the thousands of acres of rich farmland owned by Lee Wilson & Co., but wasn’t sure at first what to do with the company town. Lawrence considered keeping the farmland while divesting himself of commercial property at Wilson. Then he became fascinated with the history of the town and decided instead to pour money into the place.
Nic Brown wrote for Garden & Gun: “There was a time when the tiny Delta town of Wilson was booming so hard that it was ginning more cotton than almost anywhere else in the South, all of its storefronts were being built to resemble an English Tudor village, and the hundreds of employees working its fertile soil were paid in currency printed by Lee Wilson & Co., which created the town in 1886. Then the Depression hit, the cotton industry crumbled, and by the turn of the new millennium, the town had become a shell of its earlier self.
“Just about all that was left open for business was the pharmacy, a bank and the post office. Like many a Delta community, Wilson had almost faded away before the arrival of Gaylon Lawrence Jr., chairman of the Lawrence Group, whose nationwide holdings include stakes in vineyards and citrus groves. … And while he acquired the land for its farming potential, Lawrence developed an unlikely plan for Wilson itself: to remake the decaying Delta town, then population 912, into a center of art, culture and education.”
Tom Beckbe founder Radcliff Menge may have put it best: “There are places that cast a shadow much bigger than their geographical footprint, and Wilson has become one of those places. To our customers, the Delta is the center of the sporting world. The Delta’s got a great reputation for grit. Now Wilson is its polished-up diamond.”