Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
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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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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...
1. THE SHAPING OF THE LAND
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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...
2. THE MAKING OF THE MAN
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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...
3. A RIVER OF WOE: Reshaping the Land
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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...
4. A NEW SOUTH ENTREPRENEUR IN THE PROGRESSIVE ERA
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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...
5. BUILDING IT OF BRICK AND HOLLOW TILE
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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...
6. “THE WIND HAVE CHANGED”: The Flood of 1927
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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...
7. “GET HARD AND RAISE HELL”
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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...
8. CHANGING OF THE GUARD
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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...
9. THE RETURN OF THE “CLASS BOY”
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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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Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2011