William Arthur Davis, Visionary Businessman

Where there is no vision, the people perish – Proverbs 29:18

Wm. Arthur Davis and Florence Anna Arnold, c. 1892

Wm. Arthur Davis and 1st wife Florence Anna Arnold, c. 1892

In 1914, William Arthur Davis came down from Lebanon Mountain and bought a city block in Baldwyn. W.A. Davis had made a name, a home and a fortune for himself and his first seven children with a grist mill, a tanning operation and a lumber mill in the Geeville community, but like prominent members of neighboring McElroy and Nelson families before him, Davis saw turn-of-the-century Baldwyn as the land of milk and honey in this modern age of automobiles, and electricity, and running water.

Davis was born on the mountain in 1871 to William Jackson Davis and Mary Elizabeth Blassingame, but by 1877 young Arthur had lost both parents. First, his father Jackson died of a stroke in 1875, while his mother was still pregnant with little brother Jack. When Mary died herself two years later, likely from yellow fever or tuberculosis, the two boys were orphaned completely and moved in with their grandparents.

Arthur’s grandfather, his namesake, another William Arthur Davis, was a tanner there on the slopes of Lebanon between Geeville and Dry Creek, having reached that area in the 1840’s, the very earliest days of permanent settlement in north Mississippi.

W.A. absorbed nine years of frontier business education from his grandfather before the elder Davis died in 1886, essentially leaving the 14 year-old and his brother Jack, then 10, orphans a second time. But at some point between his boyhood, that saw more death and loss than any child should have to suffer, and his 1891 marriage to a lovely 17 year-old farmer’s daughter named Florence Anna Arnold, William Arthur Davis had found within himself an insatiable drive – a desire to build, to create, to accomplish. It was an obsession that never left him.

He first expanded his grandfather’s tannery. He built a grist mill and a lumber mill, his pride and joy, which all together moved his financial standing to opulent levels, at least relative to his hill country neighbors. He tapped an artesian spring near his expanding home place there on Dry Creek Road and gave his family the first taste of running water and useful indoor plumbing to be found in his community and well beyond.

He and Florence began their family with son Leonard in 1892, and the Davis clan grew steadily until Florence’s untimely death in 1910. Only 39 years old, William Arthur Davis again suffered the loss of an immediate family member. This time, however, seven children suffered with him – Leonard, the oldest at 18, Victor, Jack, Mary Katherine, Lessie, Milton and Harvey, only a year old.

Many men, perhaps most, would have idled through the balance of life after yet another devastating personal tragedy. But W. A. Davis was of a different sort.

William Arthur Davis family, c. 1936

William Arthur Davis family, c. 1936: Seated – Alan Caldwell, Mary Ellen Caldwell, Irma Jean Davis, Irva Davis, Billy Davis, Ollie Graham Davis, Irma Davis, Lessie White Davis, James Davis; Standing – Edith Davis, Eugene Davis, Anna Lee Davis, Abner Wilburn Caldwell, Katherine Davis Caldwell, Jack Arnold Davis, Clarice White Davis, William Leonard Davis, William Arthur Davis, Victor Hugo Davis, William Murray White, Bonds Caldwell.

In 1912, Arthur married a neighbor, Ollie Graham, and within two years, he packed up his family, including an eighth child Eugene, and his business savvy and bought the Baldwyn city block northeast of Clayton and 2nd Streets. He had a plan. He would provide Baldwyn with every product and service that he could produce, having refined his wide array of goods and talents in the two decades previous at Lebanon. He built a home facing west on 2nd Street on the northwest corner of his block, where he and Ollie added two more children to their brood – James and Edith. He built a grocery store, a café, and most importantly, he built Davis Lumber Company. The block, his block, his empire along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, operated just as he had envisioned, and both Arthur Davis and the community prospered.

W. A. Davis, the visionary businessman who came down from Lebanon Mountain with a second wife and eight children in 1914, beat the odds that were stacked against a six year-old orphan in rural Mississippi four decades earlier. Davis had a vision for what Baldwyn could be for him and what he could be for Baldwyn. He dreamed big, he executed to a plan, and before his death in 1947 at the age of 76, he built a small fortune and a large legacy, one which his descendents have carried with them for generations.


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Filed under Genealogical research, Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi, Mississippi History

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