I love to visit Country Music sites. The Man in Black has long been a favorite of mine. I especially liked Johnny Cash’s last album . In particular I like the song Hurt which was so from the heart. When my husband Keith and I were close to Dyess, Arkansas we visited Cash’s boyhood home. Keith and I headed out to what appeared to be the middle of nowhere before finding the Johnny Cash boyhood home. Eventually we found the home and a fascinating story of the Dyess Colony, a New Deal agricultural opportunity that came about during the Great Depression.
The Dyess Colony, and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home
Johnny Cash’s family moved to the Dyess Colony in March of 1935. According to Historic Dyess, “Ray and Carrie Cash were among the nearly 500 colonist families recruited from all over Arkansas to the historic Dyess Colony. The Cashes moved to Dyess in March 1935 with their five children, including Roy, 13; Louise, 11; Jack, 5; J. R., 3; and Reba, 1. Two additional children, Joanne and Tommy, were born in Dyess.”
J.R., as Johnny Cash was known as a child, started working in his father’s cotton fields at the age of five, singing along with his family while working. The Cash home is one of the few houses remaining at Dyess. Johnny Cash truly lived here for most of his childhood. He lived in Dyess until he graduated from high school in 1950. Cash’s music was greatly influenced by his experiences in Dyess. Songs they say that reflect this past include, “Pickin’ Time” and “Five Feet High and Rising.”
The last because of flooding that occurred on the farm. The house is a walk through the past. His mother Carrie Cash’s piano is onsite. It is easy to get an idea of his life with a visit. The Cash family came to Dyess one year after the Dyess Colony was established in 1934.
There were nearly 100 resettlement communities throughout the US. Settlements sizes ranged from as few as ten to as many as 500 at Dyess. The community was under the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Dyess got its name from the Mississippi County native William Reynolds Dyess. He was Arkansas’s first WPA administrator.
Who Was William Reynolds Dyess?
William Reynolds Dyess was an Arkansas transplant. He came to Arkansas in 1926 to work as superintendent of construction. The company engaged in levee work. Historic Dyess states, “In 1930 he bought a farm near Osceola, and was named to the Mississippi County Election Commission. Dyess promoted his plan for a colony of small subsistence farms to federal relief administrator, Harry Hopkins, and located “Colonization Project No. 1,” on 16,000 acres of land in Mississippi County.”
Dyess didn’t have much time to make his dream a reality. On January 14, 1936, he was killed in a plane crash. The crash was near Goodwin (St. Francis County). He was survived by his wife, Margaret Jackson Dyess, and their three children. Dyess is buried in Ermen Cemetery in Osceola
Details of Dyess Colony
William Dyess had a special dream for the colony. He offered share croppers and tenant farmers tracks of twenty- to forty-acres of bottomland plots. The farmers also received a small house. This colony was different from others. Farmers worked and took the profits from the crops to pay on the land. Then they could pay off and own the land they farmed.
Dyess was the largest New Deal program of its kind,. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas states that it was “… a distinctive, pioneering effort, one that a local newspaper called “the only purely agricultural rehabilitation colony project in the nation this side of Alaska.”
The colony attracted National attention. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the community in 1936. She addressed the colonists from the front steps of the colony’s centerpiece. This is a large Greek Revival Administration Building which still stands. There are letters of correspondence between Eleanor Roosevelt and a woman living at the Dyess Colony on display
In 2009 the area was deserted and the Cash home dilapidated . Then the area thankfully was developed as a historic site. The site highlights Johnny Cash and the Dyess agricultural heritage. In 2010 the Administration Building, along with the adjacent Theatre center shell was donated to the University of Arkansas. They now own the site and the Cash boyhood home. All have been restored. Much of this is funded through entry fees and an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival. The guide at the site said that Roseanne Cash is usually at the festival along with other high profile singers! This year the event will be virtual. I’d love to attend this event.
Tours what can you see?
Tours begin at the Visitors Center and then go next door in the Dyess Colony Administration Building. At the visitor’s center I learned that Tommy Cash is a big star. “He is bigger in Canada and Europe than Johnny Cash,” our young guide said.
The Visitor’s Center also had Cash family memorabilia and profiles the Cash family focusing on Johnny Cash. During these years, he lost his brother Jack and suffered hardships, but had family fun as well. Here you see one of Johnny’s suits and pictures of many residents of Dyess.
At the Administration Building you learn , the story of the Dyess Colony. You find what it was like for the Cash family growing up in the Colony. Next a shuttle takes you to the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home for a guided tour. A former Mayor of Dyess drove our shuttle and filled us in on details of the house. He had grown up just down the road on a farm.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home!
The house is small and one thing I learned was how Johnny Cash picked out his black coat. “He chose it from the Prince Albert can,” our guide said. The picture was used as a guide for the seamstress to create the coat! In the house you see pictures in the room where Johnny Cash slept. A purse sits on the bed like Carrie Cash used to place hers. There are many small things like this that show a lot about their lives.
Out back are a few outbuildings.
I don’t know which was more fascinating to me, Dyess Colony, or the Johnny Cash boyhood home. Both offer a unique story of life on the farm as we never knew it, New Deal style. If you get a chance visit this historic site and then play a little Cash on the way home! Johnny Cash died in 2003.
Recently we visited the American Farm Museum. in Perryville, Missouri Here you can see tractors used in the Johnny Cash story, Walk The Line!