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Delta Empire

Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South

Jeannie Whayne

Publication Year: 2011

In Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South Jeannie Whayne employs the fascinating history of a powerful plantation owner in the Arkansas delta to recount the evolution of southern agriculture from the late nineteenth century through World War II. After his father’s death in 1870, Robert E. “Lee” Wilson inherited 400 acres of land in Mississippi County, Arkansas. Over his lifetime, he transformed that inheritance into a 50,000-acre lumber operation and cotton plantation. Early on, Wilson saw an opportunity in the swampy local terrain, which sold for as little as fifty cents an acre, to satisfy an expanding national market for Arkansas forest reserves. He also led the fundamental transformation of the landscape, involving the drainage of tens of thousands of acres of land, in order to create the vast agricultural empire he envisioned. A consummate manager, Wilson employed the tenancy and sharecropping system to his advantage while earning a reputation for fair treatment of laborers, a reputation—Whayne suggests—not entirely deserved. He cultivated a cadre of relatives and employees from whom he expected absolute devotion. Leveraging every asset during his life and often deeply in debt, Wilson saved his company from bankruptcy several times, leaving it to the next generation to successfully steer the business through the challenges of the 1930s and World War II. Delta Empire traces the transition from the labor-intensive sharecropping and tenancy system to the capital-intensive neo-plantations of the post–World War II era to the portfolio plantation model. Through Wilson’s story Whayne provides a compelling case study of strategic innovation and the changing economy of the South in the late nineteenth century.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-xi

This book had its origins in a research paper I wrote for Steve Hahn at the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1980s. In that paper I engaged the historiography on the evolution of plantation agriculture and the emergence of the tenancy system in the post–Civil War South, and I grappled with...

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pp. 1-7

Robert E. “Lee” Wilson founded a plantation empire in the lush and dangerous lower Mississippi River Valley in the late nineteenth century, parlaying a four-hundred-acre inheritance into a fifty-thousand- acre farming operation. Born in Mississippi County, Arkansas, in the last weeks of the Civil War to a...

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pp. 8-33

Josiah Wilson, an unconventional but enterprising West Tennessee planter and businessman, early recognized great potential in the northeastern Arkansas swamps. He looked beyond their reputation for lawlessness and their appearance of limited agricultural possibilities. More cautious men saw only danger and unpromising circumstances...

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pp. 34-59

Death and controversy plagued Robert E. “Lee” Wilson early in his life. Born during the final weeks of the Civil War, he faced not only the reduced circumstances common to most southerners in that era but also endured additional burdens. When his father died in July 1870, his older half sister challenged his...

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3. A RIVER OF WOE: Reshaping the Land

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pp. 60-86

In the year 1900 much of the property Lee Wilson owned remained mired in swamps. He demonstrated a single-minded determination to harvest the wealth of timber on it and turn it into productive farm acreage. This required attention to two interrelated factors: building levees to protect against floods and constructing both drainage...

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pp. 87-112

While Wilson spent the first two decades of the twentieth century contending with the forces of nature, he also focused on consolidating his control over his operation and organizing his lumber and agricultural businesses into profitable enterprises. He developed a decentralized management structure, but...

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pp. 113-140

When Lee Wilson crossed the Mississippi River in 1880 to establish a lumber camp on his Arkansas property, Napoleon Wilson, a forty-five-year-old black freedman born as a slave into the Wilson household in Randolph, Tennessee, accompanied him. Napoleon’s decision to join fifteen-year-old...

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6. “THE WIND HAVE CHANGED”: The Flood of 1927

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pp. 141-162

Lee Wilson and other planters along the lower Mississippi River Valley expended great effort to control floods and drain the land of back swamps, particularly in the first quarter of the twentieth century. These two goals—flood control and drainage—worked together to create an agricultural bonanza, but drainage...

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pp. 163-183

Despite the disastrous flood of 1927 and a decade-long depression in agriculture beginning after World War I, Lee Wilson appeared to remain impervious to it all. While many other farmers and planters proved unable to weather the almost perfect storm of environmental and economic catastrophes, Wilson consolidated and...

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pp. 184-210

During the last year of his life, Lee Wilson aggressively pursued every avenue open to him to save his company from bankruptcy, confident in his ability to maneuver in a world where the federal government assumed a new and intrusive role in the agricultural economy. Following a lifelong pattern of capitalizing on...

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pp. 211-232

After serving in the army during World War II, Bob Wilson initially chose another life in a different venue rather than return to Wilson, Arkansas, and pursue the destiny laid out for him. Described in 1936 by one of his father’s former classmates at Yale as “rather a shy, diffident, lovable, good-looking rascal,” he became an...

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Appendix: Tables

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pp. 233-244


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pp. 245-285


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pp. 287-298

E-ISBN-13: 9780807138564
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807138557

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2011