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Delta Empire

Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South

Making the Modern South

312 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 16 halftones, 4 maps

ebook available

Southern History

  Hardcover / 9780807138557 / December 2011
  Paperback / 9780807164013 / February 2016

Winner of the Arkansiana Award

Winner of the J.G. Ragsdale Book Award in Arkansas History

Winner of the J. G. Ragsdale Book Award

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.

Jeannie Whayne is a professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author or editor of ten books, including Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Southern Agriculture, winner of the J. G. Ragsdale Book Award.

Praise for Delta Empire

“Crisply written and impeccably researched. Whayne had the benefit of tapping the almost unparalleled business records of Lee Wilson to assist her in recreating this compelling portrait of New South plantation agriculture. . . It is quite simply one of the most important works to arrive in southern agricultural and environmental history in recent years.”—Louisiana History

"This is a significant contribution to the literature on southern economic and labor history. . .it is a most valuable case in point of the price that plantation capitalism extracted from all its participants." —Gary T. Edwards, Arkansas State University (Agricultural History)

"In Delta Empire, Whayne brings to life both the history of [Wilson's] company and the story of the founder, and, in so doing, ensures that in the future their intertwined narratives will be remembered beyond the Arkansas Delta - indeed, beyond the lower Mississippi Valley - and become fundamental to the history of the twentieth-century South."—Peter A. Coclanis, Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor of History at UNC, Chapel Hill (Arkansas Historical Quarterly)

"...wide-ranging plantation biography [that] brims with gripping scenes and anecdotes. Delta Empire provides many rich pickings for historians of the South."—Gavin Wright, William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History, Stanford University (Journal of American History

"...this book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the processes that have made the modern South."—John C. Rodrigue, the Lawrence and Theresa Salameno Professor of History, Stonehill College (American Historical Review)

Links for Delta Empire

Dr. Jeannie Whayne Speaks on Agricultural History in the Delta

Jeannie Whayne discusses "Delta Empire"

Jeannie Whayne visits KUAF to discuss her book “Delta Empire”

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