The Sentinel-Record/Beth Reed DIG IN: The signature doughnut bread pudding served at Wilson Cafe is an area favorite. The recipe can even be found in the town's travel brochure.

The Sentinel-Record/Beth Reed DIG IN: The signature doughnut bread pudding served at Wilson Cafe is an area favorite. The recipe can even be found in the town's travel brochure.

Short hop

By Beth Reed The Sentinel-Record
This article was published July 17, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

WILSON -- A little more than an hour southeast of Jonesboro is a small town at the heart of the Delta renaissance worth passing through.

Wilson was originally built around a sawmill in 1886, but the fertile farmland and use of sharecropper labor quickly catapulted the town into a cotton empire.

The former "company town" has experienced a breath of revitalization in the past seven years since The Lawrence Group purchased Lee Wilson & Co., including numerous town buildings and acreage. After driving the long stretch of highway with flat farmland as far as the eye can see, the uncharacteristic Tudor-style buildings nestled together in the historic town square are a welcome sight.

Currently, there are no lodging options in the town, making it a true day trip destination. When arriving in Wilson travelers are greeted by a blend of friendly locals -- some lifetime residents, others transplants -- and each one will inquire of their guests the same question: "Have you had lunch yet?"

That's where husband and wife duo Joseph Cartwright and Shari Haley come in. Owners and operators of Wilson Cafe, the two have brought local foods to the forefront, with much of the restaurant's produce grown directly across the highway at Wilson Gardens.

"We use as much locally sourced produce as we can," said Haley, while taking a quick break from waiting tables during the weekday lunch rush.

The couple were working at restaurants in Memphis when the idea arose to bring a farm-to-table restaurant to Wilson. Cartwright was contacted by the town developer, Haley said, and the two moved to the area and opened the cafe in December 2013.

The menu offers daily specials, but there are also local favorites available every day. Haley suggested The Fire Bird sandwich for lunch -- deep fried chicken with sweet smoky Buffalo sauce for an added kick. For dinner, greens and cornbread or scampi and grits are "a must." And one must not leave without a slice of one of the many pies or a helping of the famous doughnut bread pudding.

The Sentinel-Record/Beth Reed GRAB A BITE: Wilson Cafe has gotten a breath of new life with husband and wife chefs Joseph Cartwright and Shari Haley a...

Across Highway 61 in an old service station is the newest Wilson addition, White's Mercantile.

Owned by singer/songwriter Holly Williams -- daughter of Hank Williams Jr. -- this location is the first outside of the greater Nashville area.

"White's is named after Holly's maternal grandparents," said employee Taylor Maharrey.

Williams, she said, has a passion for delta renaissance which made Wilson a perfect fit for the location. The store is billed as a "general store for the modern-day tastemaker," and rightly so. Maharrey said each store's inventory has been curated by Williams herself.

Just a short drive across the railroad tracks takes one to Wilson Gardens, a sight to behold.

Created in the spring of 2014, the gardens provide organic produce and pastured eggs not only to consumers, but restaurants throughout Memphis, Jonesboro and Little Rock. Farmer director Leslie Wolverton said this is just the beginning.

"When we got started there wasn't much else here," said the Mississippi native. "The restaurant opened in December, and I moved here the following February. It was more of a reclamation process."

What started at seven acres has since grown to 200, stretching from the railroad to the nearby Mississippi River levee. The farm has also added cattle and goats.

"You've got to love it to do it," Wolverton said.

The gardens offer a community supported agriculture program where consumers pledge preseason financial support and receive a weekly share of the farm's crops during the season. And the excitement around the farms has grown into other ventures including weddings and events on the grounds, and educational programs benefiting the community.

The Sentinel-Record/Beth Reed A BIT OF HISTORY: Once the most important "company town" in the South, Wilson began as a sawmill operation in 1886. Lee ...

Coming down the pike in the near future for Wilson is the updated Hampson Archeological Museum. The collection of nationally renowned Native American artifacts from the 15-acre Nodena site are finding a new home right in the town square. Set to open in Fall 2017, the new museum will offer interactive exhibits and special programming.

Before hitting the road home or to the next destination, locals are quick to offer a warm goodbye and encourage visitors to return. The love for their hometown -- whether native or adopted -- is contagious.

Local on 07/17/2017

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