This Tiny Arkansas Town Is Changing Everything We Know About Southern Agricultural Communities

Ellen McGauley,

You may never find another place quite like Wilson, Arkansas.

Jim Sanders is racing the storm. A late-season hurricane is rolling through the Gulf, set to arc up out of Louisiana in as soon as three days. At the helm of a 50,000-pound picker, Sanders cuts through dense rows of cotton, “good cotton,” he says, crossing into a field where grid lines vanish beneath tangles of thick, snowy bolls.

And it is good cotton: long-staple, Upland cotton, highly sought by makers from luxury linen producers to global garment mills. A lengthy rain could affect the harvest, and life along the Arkansas Delta has long relied on good, consistent crops. But in Wilson, where Sanders will keep at it long after dark, they’re flipping the script. Good cotton will depend on life in Wilson.

The town’s namesake, R. E. “Lee” Wilson, was part of a post-Civil War boon of progressives of the day who saw a future in the crop. At 17, Lee began borrowing money to buy up swampland, turning the 400 acres his father, a plantation owner, left him into a business that would go on to employ thousands, many of them African American laborers seeking security and a living wage as free men and women and who, Lee acknowledged, were crucial to his success. Upon his death in the 1930s, Lee was the largest cotton producer in the South, and Wilson, the small outpost north of Memphis, the base of his operation.