Standing in White's Mercantile in the Mississippi County town of Wilson, I feel as if I'm in Nashville, Savannah or Charleston. This place is Southern hip, a bit like stepping into the pages of Garden & Gun magazine. White's Mercantile, whose other two locations are in the Nashville area, is the brainchild of Holly Williams, a singer-songwriter whose father is Hank Williams Jr.
The store opened last May and is part of businessman Gaylon Lawrence Jr.'s effort to transform Wilson into a model Delta community that will draw people from Memphis and as far away as Little Rock to eat, shop and soak up the history.
"Beautiful cotton fields, incredible food, and close proximity to Memphis make this a perfect day-trip destination and an ideal next location for White's Mercantile," Williams said when plans for the store were unveiled last spring.
White's Mercantile is named for her maternal grandparents, Warren and June White. Williams selects items for her stores and sometimes affixes handwritten notes to products to describe what they mean to her family. The store, which is just across U.S. 61 from the Wilson town square, is already attracting a steady stream of visitors from the Memphis area. It features everything from Filson watches and Los Poblanos lotions to cutting boards and caramels. I couldn't make it out without a couple of books.
The company's promotional literature describes White's Mercantile as "a completely curated shop stocked with Holly's favorite items that she has found while spending much of her life on the highway playing music to adoring fans. ... Don't expect rhinestones and cowboy hats. Holly's style embodies a modern-day chic simplicity."
Just as the store has what I can only describe as that Garden & Gun vibe, this entire town has a special feel due to Lawrence's investments. There's the Delta School, which already is recognized as one of the top private schools in the region. There's the Wilson Cafe, where chef Joe Cartwright continues to work wonders with locally sourced foods.
The state's Hampson Museum will soon move into a building on the square. It was built in the English Tudor style of the square's other structures. I peered through the windows of the modern facility after leaving White's Mercantile. It's a huge space when compared with the museum's previous facility on the edge of town. That building was dedicated in 1961 after R.E. Lee Wilson III donated a five-acre site. The museum was renovated in 1978, but it had become hopelessly outdated. The facility on the square cost more than $4 million to build. The museum will house a collection of artifacts from a Mississippian Period village that existed in the area from about 1400 to about 1650. Dr. James K. Hampson, who died in 1956, began collecting the artifacts in the 1930s. The Hampson Museum is the first new construction on the town square in 57 years.
What once was the company town for one of the largest cotton plantations in the world is now the headquarters for The Lawrence Group, which has real estate, banking and additional holdings across the country. The company owns almost 200,000 acres of farmland. The Lawrence Group was started by Gaylon Lawrence Jr.'s father in Sikeston, Mo., a place Arkansans probably know best for the "throwed rolls" at Lambert's Cafe. In late 2010, The Lawrence Group purchased the assets of Lee Wilson & Co., including almost all of the commercial property in Wilson.
In recent years, Lawrence has become more engaged in the booming Nashville real estate market. In a 2016 profile of Lawrence, the Nashville Business Journal's Scott Harrison wrote: "He prefers to be out of the limelight. But Gaylon Lawrence Jr. is about to grab Nashville's attention in a major way. Few have the resources or the inclination to pay all cash for a bank. Lawrence did just that last fall. With one $85 million check, the Nashville billionaire swooped in and bought one of the largest banks in Middle Tennessee and the region's second-largest mortgage lender, Clarksville's F&M Bank. The Missouri native has flirted with Greater Nashville for more than a decade, launching Tennessee Bank & Trust in Franklin 13 years ago and playing his hand in various commercial real estate deals. ... But with his purchase of F&M, Lawrence established himself as a power player in Nashville banking. And he isn't done yet--not in the least. On the hunt for his next investments, both in banking and real estate, Lawrence stands to be a mover and shaker in Nashville business circles for the foreseeable future."
Though he has a diverse portfolio, Lawrence's first love is still agriculture. He had long coveted the Wilson family land in northeast Arkansas. Lawrence's efforts at Wilson first attracted national attention in January 2014 when Kim Severson wrote a story for The New York Times.
"At first you are thinking, 'How can I get this off my back?'" Lawrence told Severson. "But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst. I can't really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. ... This town has so much character we don't have to make it up."
In the four years since that story was published, Lawrence has spent millions of dollars at Wilson. He seems intent on making Wilson a regional center not only for farming but for education, fine food, upscale shopping, culture and the arts. At a time when much of the Delta struggles, this tiny jewel becomes more polished by the day.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 01/20/2018
Print Headline: That Wilson vibe