Though the scion of wealthy parents, the circumstances facing a young Robert E. Lee Wilson seemed bleak. Of 2,300 acres split between four siblings, he inherited 400 acres of swampland. Furthermore, with both parents deceased, Wilson, a minor, was placed in the custody of his uncle. The situation did not portend the success he would have building a plantation “empire” in the Mississippi River delta region in eastern Arkansas.
The son of Josiah and Martha Parsons Wilson, he was born on a plantation in Mississippi County, Arkansas, on March 5, 1865. Despite his circumstances, after his seventeenth birthday, Lee displayed the determination that would make him a rich man, successfully petitioning for majority status which allowed him to take charge of his lands. Marrying Elizabeth Beall in December 1884, two years later he went into business with his father-in-law, Socrates Beall, forming the Wilson and Beall Lumber Company. Though young, Wilson was also extremely shrewd, doing the only thing that could be done with swampland—he harvested the lumber and drained the swamps. Taking advantage of the rich soil of the “cut-over” lands, he planted cotton. With the profits he bought more undeveloped land, beginning the process over again. This process allowed him to acquire vast amounts of fertile land.
To facilitate his lumber and farming operations, Wilson founded several small towns, including Wilson, Evadale, Marie, Victoria, Armorel, and Keiser. In each town he established an independent plantation, which included a cotton gin and a store that provided food, clothing, and other supplies to laborers. Those laborers not employed in the lumber industry, gin, or other businesses worked the land, with white employees contracting as tenant farmers and black employees sharecropping.
Lee Wilson and Company was incorporated in 1904, and four years later Wilson established the Bank of Wilson, which among other things provided him with a constant and reliable source of credit. However, he preferred decentralized holdings, and the corporation was dissolved, being replaced by a series of trusts, each centered ’round one of his towns. He gained a reputation for providing better benefits for his workers, including superior housing, healthcare, and schools. As a result, his enterprises drew large numbers of people seeking employment. However, there was a rougher side to him, manifested by behind-the-scenes involvement in politics and the use of groups of armed men to secure his interests. Wilson was accused of peonage.
Wilson enthusiastically led in the development of rural Mississippi County, especially when such development benefited him. For instance, he was a major proponent of developing a levee system to prevent flooding of lands. However, such a development proved to be a double-edged sword. As revealed by the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the levee system protected Wilson lands. But neighboring lands were inundated with water, and massive numbers of small farmers were displaced. In many cases the farmers, in hope to alleviate their predicament, retaliated by dynamiting levees that protected Wilson’s lands.
Although having enough money to run his operations was always problematic, Wilson was hit hard by the Great Depression. Therefore, he enthusiastically welcomed the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president. The implementation of New Deal programs pumped much-needed cash into his business enterprises. In 1933, he received a multi-million dollar loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He strongly supported the crop reduction program of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration whereby farmers were compensated for planting fewer crops, and by 1935, Wilson enterprises were the single largest beneficiary in the nation.
Though receiving the short end of his parents’ legacy, Wilson’s determination and shrewdness allowed him to succeed beyond all expectations. By the time of his death on September 27, 1933, he had amassed 65,000 acres, which was reputed to be largest cotton plantation in the South. He had indeed built a Delta Empire.
For more information, see Jeannie Whayne, Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011); and the R. E. Lee Wilson Company Records, available in Special Collections in 2019.