Wilson Family Legacy Remains Through Wesson Farms

Although Lee Wilson & Co. is no longer owned by any of the Wilsons, a branch of the family continues farming more than 8,200 acres in Mississippi County.

Much of the land, once part of the Lee Wilson & Co. portfolio, is held in the name of Wesson Farms Inc. The corporation represents the heirs of the eldest daughter of Lee Wilson, Victoria Wilson Wesson.

That’s Wesson as in Smith & Wesson, the gunmaking corporation of Springfield, Mass. Victoria Wilson married Frank Herbert Wesson, grandson of Daniel Wesson, co-founder of Smith & Wesson.

The Wesson Farms land is centered on the community of Victoria, 12 miles northwest of Wilson as the crow flies. Lee Wilson named it in her honor as he did the town of Marie, named for her sister.

Marie Wilson Howells made a name for herself as a philanthropist, with a generous bent toward her home state. Among her gifts was a 1979 endowed trust that established chairs in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

The two sisters and their heirs exited the ownership picture of Lee Wilson & Co. in 1948. The split followed a long-running dispute with Jim Crain, who managed the company for their father.

At that time, Lee Wilson & Co. was structured as a trust owned by the heirs of Lee Wilson. However, as the sole trustee, the family patriarch controlled the company until his death in 1933.

After that, the controlling trusteeship passed to R.E.L. "Roy" Wilson Jr. and Crain. According to the long-running lawsuit led by Victoria Wilson Wesson and Marie Wilson Howells, Crain "assumed effective control" of Lee Wilson & Co. after the trust agreement was renewed in 1937.

The sisters weren’t happy with Crain’s management of the family business and went to court to have him removed as a trustee in a case that bounced between U.S. District Court and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Their lawsuit alleged that Crain "assumed exclusive management of the trust; that he has devoted a large portion of his time to his own business to the detriment of the trust and has committed various breaches of trust …"

R.E.L. "Bobby" Wilson V wasn’t born when the family wrestled for control of Lee Wilson & Co. But he remembers talk of the controversy and stories of Crain renting Wilson land to his family members and cronies for a nominal fee and profiting on the side.

"My dad [R.E.L. "Bob" Wilson III] and my grandfather [Roy] weren’t happy either, and they wanted him to relinquish his trusteeship," Wilson said.

The end result of the dispute was that Crain did step down, but not until he received a cash settlement that he used to buy some of the Wilson Family holdings. This gave rise to Crain Co., which continues as a farming concern.

Victoria Wilson Wesson’s family received a portion of the company’s land and assets while Marie Wilson Howells essentially cashed out her interest in Lee Wilson & Co.

The division left the family of Roy Wilson with a smaller but still substantial company. In the wake of the breakup, he asked his namesake son if he was interested in returning to the family business.

At the time, R.E.L. "Bob" Wilson III was living with his family in Colorado when his father asked him to come home and manage the company in 1950.

"I will come back and run it if you let me run it the way I want to run it" was his father’s reply, according to Bobby Wilson.

Bob Wilson led the company in its transition into the modern era of farming. Under his leadership, Lee Wilson & Co. also assembled a 10,741-acre cattle ranch in northeastern Nevada beginning in 1967.

This piece of the family business was sold in December 2006 for $4.8 million to Scott McLachlan of Lehi, Utah.