DYESS, Ark. • Honkytonks and haute restaurants are equally hard to come by in this part of the Arkansas Delta these days, where places to see a show or legally buy a beer with dinner can be few and far between. Yet, music luminaries gather in the area annually to pay their respects to the memory and legend of Johnny Cash, who grew up in this tiny farm town in the northeast corner of the state. Tourists also occasionally make pilgrimages to honor the iconic entertainer, and now they finally have something to see.
Cash’s boyhood home and the Dyess Administration Building have been restored in the first phase of a $5.59 million project that eventually aims to partly resurrect not only the historic Depression-era colony the Cash family called home, but this area’s fiscal fortunes by drawing from 30,000 to 50,000 visitors annually. If those projections — based on visitor numbers to the nearby boyhood homes of Elvis Presley and B.B. King — are accurate, tourism could infuse as much as $10 million a year into the economy and add around 100 coveted jobs for the region’s residents.
“So, that, for Arkansas, is quite significant,” said Ruth Hawkins, head of Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites program, which is guiding the restoration.
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The Dyess project’s grand opening is Aug. 16, the day after the university hosts the fourth annual Johnny Cash Music Festival, featuring headliners Reba McEntire, Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn. The show started as a fundraiser for the project, which has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council and other sources.
Officials at the university, based in Jonesboro, have so far cobbled together about $2.5 million. Eventually, they hope to resurrect the colony’s theater building, which is now little more than a deteriorated shell, transforming it into a visitor orientation center, and build a caretaker home that replicates an original colony house. The later phases of the project emphasize the site’s historical significance beyond its ties to the Man in Black.
“The Dyess Colony was established as an agricultural resettlement community by the Works Progress Administration in 1934, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal as a plan to get destitute farmers back on their feet,” Hawkins said. “And it wasn’t a government handout. You came and you cultivated and worked the land. When the land became productive and you began to make some money off it, then you paid the government back with the idea of eventually owning your own land.”
Five hundred families were selected to settle in modest houses there and, with the help of a mule and seed money, each tamed 20 to 40 acres of what was then forest and swampland. To qualify, colonists had to have a proven record as successful farmers before the Depression. Ray and Carrie Cash and their five oldest children were among those chosen to take part in the cultural experiment, so the family — including a 3-year-old then called J.R. — moved to Dyess from Kingsland, Ark., in 1935.
“I think that was an important part of American history — the New Deal and the WPA project. Maybe it’s still fairly recent enough that we don’t look at it as the important part of history that it is. But for really desperately poor families like the Cash family was; it saved them,” said Cash’s oldest daughter, the performer and writer Rosanne Cash. “I don’t think they would have survived without the WPA project. And that town was created purely out of that. There were 500 cottages, the administration building where my grandpa sold the cotton he picked and the co-op, the movie theater, the café and the school. It was a fully functioning town, and there’s not much left of it now.”
Considering its former state of disrepair, it is fortunate from a cultural perspective that the Cash house was one of the few original buildings still standing. While it was valued at $100,000 when the university acquired it in 2011, that appraisal was due more to its historical significance than its structural soundness.
“I think that’s one of the things that is so significant about the story is that the Cash family were just typical colonists. So, by restoring Johnny Cash’s home, not only are we giving some insight into the lifestyle of somebody who grew up to be an international music icon, but we’re also sharing how a typical colony family lived,” Hawkins said.
Today, the Dyess Administration Building features exhibits about the Dyess Colony and, after decades of hard use, the Cash family’s five-room farmhouse has been restored to look just as it did when they occupied it.
“I lived there for 17 years of my life as a young girl,” said Johnny’s youngest sister, Joanne Cash Yates. “Seeing how the house had just about fallen down from years of wear and to walk in there now and see it as it looked when I was a young girl is very inspiring.”
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Re-creating the interior started when the university’s Center for Digital Initiatives built a virtual model of the house and placed virtual furniture in it based on old photos and recollections from Cash Yates and her brother Tommy.
“They remember who sat where at the dinner table and what kind of quilt patterns were on the beds,” Hawkins said. “We wanted it to be as if the Cash family just walked out of the house on a Sunday afternoon. “
When the model was as the siblings remembered it, students and staff set about finding furniture and other household goods. Items like the claw-footed tub and kitchen sink were easy to replace because the federal government had used the same models in several houses. Some pieces like the mahogany buffet were lucky finds on the Internet. And, in the process, family members, friends, neighbors and acquaintances also realized they still owned some original items — a painting, a table built by Johnny in high school shop class, his mother’s piano — and donated them to the project. Other artifacts were literally uncovered during the restoration process.
“After layers of floor coverings, we have found my mother’s original linoleum in the living room,” Cash Yates, also a musician, said. “And, for me, it’s just been an awesome walk through time.”
For now, visitors will probably occupy a couple of hours exploring the sites. And plans eventually include re-creating the barn, smokehouse, chicken coop and outhouse at the Cash home, developing a walking trail connecting the Cash home and the town center about two miles away, building the home that replicates an original colony house and adding additional visitor services and amenities to give tourists a better taste of what the whole 16,000-acre colony was like in the decades immediately after the Dust Bowl.
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Farming still drives much of the economy in the area, and spare cash always seems hard to come by. So, though the Depression may be distant history for some of Cash’s young fans and his own family moved away in the mid-1950s, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult scratching a living out of the Delta soil was in those days.
“And the impact that growing up this way had on Johnny Cash and his music is really pretty evident. When you hear songs like ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ that’s based on the 1937 flood that nearly wiped everyone out here,” Hawkins said. “Then his song ‘Pickin’ Time’ is obviously based on the backbreaking work of picking cotton in Dyess.”
Those shared hardships built strong bonds for many in the colony which, with its cooperative store, theater and other common buildings at the center, was designed to foster a strong sense of shared community and resilience among the farm families. Oral history interviews and other research conducted largely by doctoral students in Arkansas State’s Heritage Studies program found folks who said growing up in Dyess left them with vivid memories about both the good times and the hard work of helping neighbors during natural disasters and other times of need. Vestiges of that American ideal can also be found in Cash’s lyrics.
“The importance of family, community, those kinds of things were instilled in Johnny Cash in Dyess, Arkansas,” said Hawkins. “It sounds like a Norman Rockwell painting.”
The canvas has faded in recent decades, however. As the rural agricultural economy faltered, so has Dyess, leaving many of the colony’s historic houses to fall into irreparable decline or be leveled in favor of larger farms. Today, the town’s population has dropped to 410, a fraction of the original settlement’s size, and the newly restored Cash house stands in stark contrast to some others in the area that are still worn by time, weather and circumstance.
“When we lived there, there were many houses up and down the street, and now it’s so desolate,” said Cash Yates. “It makes me sad that people would think we were raised that way.”
But the Delta’s desolation could be part of its appeal to some tourists and also seems an integral part of what made Johnny Cash and other music greats, including Albert King and B.B. King who they were. Their work, just like the Delta’s rice and cotton crops, was nourished and shaped by hard work, heat and mighty Mississippi River.
“So it’s music. It’s agriculture. And it is history, I think, in that order,” said John Faulkner, town planner in nearby Wilson.
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To capitalize on the region’s selling points and on the impending opening of the Cash home, plans are in place to convert 30 rooms above Wilson’s historic 1930s administration building into lodging for tourists and eventually open a museum that features Native American artifacts uncovered in the area. Wilson already boasts a Tudor-style town square and Wilson Café, a restaurant where diners can order that sometimes-elusive beer or glass of wine to pair with selections from a small-but-eclectic menu that includes both frog legs and prime rib.
With financial support from sources including Gaylon Lawrence Jr., the businessman who owns the town and a large chunk of land surrounding it, Wilson also hopes to add another restaurant, a private school and possibly renovate a 150-seat theater to host concerts and other entertainment.
Indeed, the only hotels to be found in the immediate area are modest-size chains right off Interstate 55 a dozen miles from Dyess. So, while it may not be the same untamed swampland as it was when his parents arrived at the end of the Depression, or even the family farm country Johnny Cash left in the 1950s, what visitors and locals can count on is a look at the Arkansas Delta that, in many ways, still untouched by suburban strip malls and other auspices of modern life.
Amy Bertrand is the editor of the Home & Away and the Let's Eat section of the Post-Dispatch. Follow her at stltoday.com/travelswithamy, @abertrand on Twitter and on Pinterest at pinterest.com/amybertrand.