Horatio Alger never wrote a story as marvelous as that of Robert E. Lee Wilson. Few figures in Arkansas have so influenced the development of a community and region. Even today, "Boss Lee's" legacy casts a long shadow over Mississippi County and particularly the community named after him, Wilson, Arkansas.
Wilson was born March 5, 1865, in Frenchman's Bayou (Mississippi County), the son of Josiah Lee Wilson and Martha Parson. When Wilson was seven years old, his father died and Martha Wilson moved the family to Memphis. Martha died in 1878 during the yellow fever epidemic, orphaning young Wilson at the age of thirteen. Wilson was then placed in the guardianship of his uncle and was sent off to the log schoolhouse of Judge Byers in Covington, Tennessee.
Judge Byers often sent his students out on surveying expeditions as a bit of practical experience. Wilson later credited these trips as the source of his interest in agriculture, an interest that would eventually lead him back to Arkansas. The man who became "Boss Lee" returned to Arkansas in 1880 as a wage laborer, working on a farm near Bassett, where he earned ten dollars a month. The following year he made a one-mule twenty-acre cotton crop. Over the next three years he managed to save enough money to buy a small sawmill. Wilson then traded a portion of his cleared land for 2,100 acres of hardwood timber and went into the logging business.
As Wilson's prospects improved, he decided to farm the 160 acres of cleared land he inherited from his father, plus 120 acres on an adjoining farm, "just to get a home for my bride." His bride was Elizabeth Adams Beall, the daughter of Socrates A. Beall, a recent arrival from Pennsylvania. "Lizzie" and Wilson married in 1885.
Wilson's marriage led directly to a logging partnership with Socrates Beall. The two opened a sawmill at Golden Lake. Over time, Wilson extended his logging operations deeper into the forests, extending railroads as he went. Around his logging camps grew company stores and towns: Marie and Victoria, named after his sisters, and also Keisor, Evadale, Armorel, and Wilson, founded in 1886.
Most lumbering companies sold their freshly cut timberlands. Not "Boss Lee." He chose to clear and drain his properties. Over many centuries, constant flooding had laid down some of the richest alluvial soil in the world. It was in these deep black, rich lands that that Wilson began to plant cotton. The arrival of the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railway proved to be a tremendous boon to Lee Wilson & Company, allowing them to market their timber more quickly and far more cheaply than before.
The early years of the Company demonstrate the tenuous nature of agriculture in the Delta counties. Breaks in the levee caused tremendous April floods in 1912 and 1913. Yet Wilson's tenacity was unmatched. He built several small railroads to facilitate the transportation of goods and timber. Wilson's first line spanned the distance from Wilson to Marie, to Keiser and on to Victoria. Later the company bought the Jonesboro, Lake City and Eastern Railway, running from Jonesboro to Lake City, Arkansas. A spur route, branching off at Dell, ran down to Wilson. The Wilson Northern line brought passengers and freight to Wilson, carrying out timber and cotton.
Later the company purchased seven thousand acres at the modern site of Armorel, Arkansas. Wilson named the town using the abbreviations of Arkansas, Missouri, and his own name. In time, "Boss Lee" owned about forty-five thousand acres of Delta land. Draining these swampy areas made Mississippi County the state's most heavily agricultural county. Wilson played crucial roles in the organization of the county's drainage districts despite serious and often dangerous opposition of many of the county's tax-weary, cash-strapped landowners, men who did not see the long-term economic advantages of drainage.
Wilson's strong work ethic and keen eye for business opportunities quickly made him one of the largest landowners in Arkansas. Though he suffered under the strains that plagued all southern farmers in the early twentieth century, his philosophy of diversification would make Lee Wilson & Company a profitable operation throughout the century. Wilson's farms grew cotton, but also corn, wheat, and alfalfa. Wilson also invested heavily in mercantile establishments, banking, railroads, manufacturing, cotton ginning, education, and at one time even the production of electricity.
"Boss Lee" believed strongly in the value of education. He donated the land and paid for much of the construction of the Wilson elementary and high school building in 1920. He served on the boards of trustees at Hendrix College and what then was A & M College in Jonesboro. Both the student health center and the old administration building on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro bear Wilson's name today. On his death, he directed his trustees to set aside a portion of his estate to be used for educational purposes throughout the state.
Lee Wilson died September 27, 1933, at the age of sixty-eight in Memphis, Tennessee. By the time of his death, Wilson's estate included not only sixty-five thousand acres of farmland but most of the businesses and all of the residences in Wilson, Arkansas, and other real property in five Mississippi County towns. All of these properties were included under the umbrella of Lee Wilson & Company and passed down in trust to his son, Robert E. Lee Wilson, Jr., and long-time employee James H. Crain. In the years that followed, Lee Wilson & Company used a very simple formula for agricultural success. Half of their plantation was given over to the production of the South's great staple, cotton. The other half was equally divided between alfalfa and corn, both used as fuel for the legions of mules who pulled the company's plows. During the 1930s, the company added wheat to the mix.
The community of Wilson changed after the Second World War. From its origins as a family-owned company town, it became a publicly-owned corporate entity. In the past, the Company had run the town as if it were one of the corporation's businesses. They kept a set of books on the town just as they had on all other aspects of their enterprise. Company Town Wilson operated at a substantial loss, however. In the 1950s the Wilsons decided a change was needed. The company sold all the homes in Wilson to its employees at an average of four thousand dollars per home. Thereafter the city incorporated, giving itself access to tax dollars and thereby placing the town of Wilson on a solid financial base. The yearly operational loss vanished overnight.
Under the leadership of R.E.L. Wilson III, the company branched out in new directions. The trend toward mechanization continued as the Ford dealership, established in "Boss Lee's" time, was joined by J.I. Case in the 1950s. The company expanded into a number of different agri-businesses, including seed and chemicals. Lee Wilson & Company operated an oil mill for soybeans, but it was forced out of business when Anderson Clayton opened its facility at Osceola, with access to river barges, while the company shipped via rail.
During the next twenty years, Wilson attempted to diversify even more. After the Second World War, there was a crucial shortage of labor in the South. Lee Wilson & Company met their great need for workers by importing Mexican nationals as migrant laborers. The program was quite simple. Each employer paid a twenty-five dollar bond per worker and picked up the laborer at the border, returning him there when the season was complete. Until the federal government changed its policy to outlaw this practice, Lee Wilson & Company transported thousands of Mexican nationals each Spring, driving the long thirty-hour trek from Brownsville, Texas, to Wilson in farm trucks.
The Mexicans worked in Wilson's latest effort at diversification -- vegetable crops. This demanding form of labor, combined with the drastic reduction in the number of farm workers in eastern Arkansas, made the use of migrant labor a necessity. There they produced spinach, lettuce, cabbage, and numerous other green vegetables. The company built a strawberry processing plant as part of an agreement to supply Breyer Ice Cream in Philadelphia. Wilson sweet potatoes went to Gerber to be turned into baby food. The entire effort, however, collapsed when the United States government abruptly ended the labor program. Wilson could not find enough manpower.
After the company left the vegetable business, they turned back toward the production of commodities. Rice and soybeans, along with cotton, constituted the bulk of their agricultural efforts. Their work here, along with substantial resources committed to seed oil production, ranching, and other industries, underscores the central philosophy of Lee Wilson & Company, "don't put all your eggs into one basket." By varying the types of crops they produced, the company insured that they would not fall prey to the cyclical periods of boom and bust in American agriculture. Year in and year out, they usually profited on four of their six crops. This philosophy, along with their work in irrigation, having over one hundred wellheads, guaranteed that Lee Wilson & Company would not only survive, but would continue to be one of the most successful agri-businesses in the South.
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