If you have been to check out the new Lewis Crossing shopping center, you probably traveled down Thomas G. Wilson Drive. This road is part of the Conway Industrial Park that was established on the east side of I-40 in the early 1980s.
Thomas Gates Wilson (1904-1985) was a prominent banker in Conway for over 60 years. He is also remembered for his consuming drive to industrialize Conway after World War II. He led many campaigns to bring industry to Conway and is also primarily responsible for the establishment of the first Conway Industrial Park in 1963.
A graduate of Conway High School and Hendrix College, Wilson attended the Little Rock chapter of the American Institute of Banking and later taught the Money and Banking and Commercial Law courses there. He began his banking career in 1922 as an assistant cashier at the Bank of Conway. While working, he continued his education, earning a law degree from the Arkansas Law School in1932. Unfortunately, the Bank of Conway failed in 1933 so Wilson had to find other work for a time.
During World War II, Wilson became an administrative officer, civilian director of personnel, for the War Department of the Pine Bluff Arsenal. He was awarded a War Department citation for meritorious civilian service and a Treasury Department citation for distinguished service in directing sales of U.S. War Bonds at the Pine Bluff Arsenal.
In 1946, Wilson and William D. Ketcheside co-founded First State Bank, locating it in the old Bank of Conway building on Front Street. Ketcheside served as the firm’s first president while Wilson was executive vice-president. Other directors of the bank were J.R. Edwards, W.E. Jumper, Edward A. Halter, Dave H. Ward and J.R. Ott. Leo Crafton was the first depositor in the new bank. First day deposits totaled $290,341.40.
The bank grew and prospered becoming one of two major banks in Conway. When the bank celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 1956, deposits totaled $4 million. Wilson became president in 1957 when Ketcheside became Chairman of the Board. By 1959, with deposits approaching $6 million, the bank was making plans to build a new facility on the southwest corner of Oak and Front having outgrown its Front Street location.
But Wilson was responsible for more than just building one of Conway’s two largest banks. While serving as Chamber of Commerce President from 1953 to 1955, he also led the campaign to bring industry to Conway. In 1955, the Chamber of Commerce’s Industrial Committee formed the Faulkner County Industrial Development Corporation (FCIDC). The corporation was financed by investors and founded for the purpose of promoting industrial development in the Conway area.
Officers of this new corporation were: Tom Wilson, President; Sam Atkisson, Vice-President; and Guy Murphy, Secretary/Treasurer. Peter Hiegel, E.W. Martin, Robert A. McNutt, S.T. Smith and Tom Wilson served on its five-member board. FCIDC helped bring International Shoe, Baldwin Piano and Universal Match-Customade Division to Conway.
In 1959, the Conway Development Corporation (CDC), a private non-profit organization would replace the FCIDC. Original members of the CDC board were Tom Wilson, Cecil Bell, Theodore Smith, Sam Adkisson and Robert Nabholz. Wilson served as CDC president from 1959 until 1982. The CDC purchased the property for the first Conway Industrial Park in 1962 and it would purchase another 158 acres in 1976 for the Conway Industrial Park East which is adjacent to the new Lewis Crossing.
Tom Wilson not only played a major role in the economic development of Conway but also was a leader in the economic development of Arkansas. Throughout his years in Conway, he was an active leader in the Arkansas Banking Association. He also served as president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1960s.
Wilson is also legendary for giving an economic forecast every year to the Rotary Club.
He gave his first economic outlook speech to the Kiwanis Club in 1954 but began doing the presentation for the Rotary Club a few years later. He continued this tradition for 30 years until 1985, when he had to yield the duty to Dr. Morris Lamberson due of illness.
First State opened its East facility in April, 1970. Wilson would become chairman of the board at First State Bank in 1971 when Ketcheside passed away, serving as both chairman and president.
That year, the bank celebrated 25 years with bank deposits of $25 million. My mother worked at the bank during this time. I remember Mr. Wilson as being personable and kind when I would visit my mother at the bank.
Wilson resigned as chair and president of the bank in early 1982. In 1984, First State became part of Worthen Banking Corporation with assets topping $132.5 million. In March, 1985, the bank moved into its new three-story building on Harkrider. Wilson continued serving as chairman of the bank’s executive committee until his death June 22, 1985.
So next time you travel down Thomas G. Wilson Drive, take a moment and pay tribute to this man whose helped lay the foundation for Faulkner County’s future prosperity.
Cindy Burnett Beckman is a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.