Cash crop Child­hood house in white re­calls Man In Black

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUR TOWN - Johnny Cash’s boy­hood home LAURINDA JOENKS

House No. 266 on Road 3 in Dyess, a small white frame house with green shut­ters, stands by it­self, sur­rounded by crop-filled fields, seem­ingly far from every­where. But this hum­ble home helped shape the life and mu­sic of an Amer­i­can leg­end.

This house has been re­stored by Arkansas State Univer­sity as the “His­toric Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash Boy­hood Home.” It is open to visi­tors in Dyess, on the Ty­ronza River in north­east­ern Arkansas, about an hour from Mem­phis. But the story of Johnny Cash is only a small part of the his­tory here.

Cash spent much of his boy­hood in Dyess, an ex­per­i­men­tal agri­cul­tural colony, a part of the New Deal re­lief ef­forts dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.


“The bed on the right was

Johnny’s,” said Amy Ulmer, an ASU grad­u­ate as­sis­tant in her­itage stud­ies, who led a tour of the house last month. “He slept there with his brother, Jack.”

The front bed­room was one of two in the house, which also in­cluded a porch, liv­ing room, din­ing room, kitchen with wood-burn­ing cast-iron stove and bath­room with a large, claw-foot tub. Ad­di­tion­ally, the home­stead in­cluded a barn, a smoke­house and an out­house.

In the other bed­room, on the

bed flour cov­ered­sacks, Car­rieby a quilt Cash’s made black from purse is dis­played. It in­cludes some change and maybe lip­stick, Ulmer said, “just as if she had left it there ear­lier to­day.”

The size of the Cash fam­ily earned them a five-room house, one of the largest in the Dyess colony, Ulmer said. Car­rie and Ray Cash moved to the house in March 1935 with five chil­dren, and

two more were born in Dyess.

“This was a nor­mal-size fam­ily,” Ulmer con­tin­ued. “Ev­ery­body had lots of kids, and ev­ery­body worked.

“The (Cash) kids moved in and out of here. They were not all un­der one roof at the same time. Roy slept on the couch, and he was only here for a few months be­fore he got mar­ried and moved out. For a short time, (the fam­ily) used the din­ing room as a bed­room.”

Dur­ing the restora­tion, his­to­ri­ans found the house’s orig­i­nal linoleum un­der car­pet, dated to the Cash fam­ily’s time — bright pink with large flow­ers. And the orig­i­nal pine boards re­main on the walls. “The Cash fam­ily never painted the walls,” Ulmer said. Out front, visi­tors en­ter the home via a re­stored brick path, orig­i­nally laid by Ray and his youngest son, Tommy.

The Cash house was re­stored with parts from other colony houses, about 40 of which still ex­ist, Ulmer said.

De­spite prom­ises and util­ity hookups in the house, it was 10 years be­fore any colonists re­ceived power lines, said tour guide Jes­sica Ross. Wa­ter lines were run to the house but never hooked up, she said. The fam­ily got its wa­ter from a well and a pump.

Ross walked to the cen­ter of the liv­ing room and pulled a string, at­tached to a bare light bulb hang­ing from the ceil­ing. Click. “And that’s the only one,” she said.

“Be­fore we got elec­tric­ity, we used old coal-oil lamps,” re­called Johnny’s sis­ter Joanne, in the book

A New Deal in Dyess: The De­pres­sion-Era Agri­cul­tural Re­set­tle­ment Colony in Arkansas by Van Hawkins (2015).

Ross pointed out oil lamps placed through­out the house. “Daddy wouldn’t let us burn them all night long be­cause coal oil cost a dime a gal­lon,” Joanne con­tin­ued.

The ac­qui­si­tion of elec­tric­ity also made the Cash fam­ily one of the first to get a tele­vi­sion, the book reads.

Next to the front door stands Car­rie Cash’s pi­ano, with some of her song books open, ready to play. “I imag­ine it was Mom’s peace­ful es­cape from the drudgery of hard work on the farm,” Ulmer said. “It was heal­ing. I bet this pi­ano could tell so many sto­ries.”

Across the room, on top of a Singer trea­dle sewing ma­chine, sits a ra­dio — a stand-in for the fam­ily’s Sears Sil­ver­tone model. Car­rie Cash would move it when she needed to sew, Ulmer said.

“Johnny kept his ear to it,” says Joanna Cash Yates, Johnny’s sis­ter, in a video taken when she and Johnny vis­ited the house in 1968.

Johnny — known to his fam­ily as J.R. — lived in the house un­til he grad­u­ated from Dyess High School in 1950 and vol­un­teered for the Air Force dur­ing the Korean War.


Large earth­quakes along the New Madrid fault line in 1811 and 1812 opened wide crevices and dropped the land as much as 50 feet. The mighty Mis­sis­sippi River — just 6 miles to the

east — had flooded the land for cen­turies, re-cre­at­ing the wilder­ness to suit its whims.

The first set­tlers to the river delta and their slaves drained and burned the land for clear­ing, leav­ing new ground, with rich soil ready for cul­ti­va­tion. But the area of Mis­sis­sippi County that would hold the Dyess colony re­mained un­touched by man.

Hard times for share­crop­pers who sought land in Dyess be­gan when farm com­mod­ity prices dropped about 10 years be­fore the fi­nan­cial cri­sis that sparked the Great De­pres­sion.

Then, a record-set­ting 1927 flood of the Mis­sis­sippi backed up into its trib­u­taries. “The flood brought vary­ing de­grees of ruin to 200 coun­ties in eight states,” ac­cord­ing to A New Deal in Dyess.

Into the per­fect storm came a record drought in 1930-31 grip­ping 23 states, with Arkansas hit the hard­est. “Between 30 and 50 per­cent of the crops were lost, and 74 of Arkansas’ 75 coun­ties lacked suf­fi­cient food for peo­ple and live­stock to make it through the win­ter,” reads a panel in the His­toric Dyess Colony Mu­seum. “By Jan­uary 1931, 35 per­cent of the state was on re­lief. Those who tried to plant a crop re­ceived less yield than the cost of pro­duc­tion.”

Ray Cash lived as an ex­am­ple of the times. He served in the Army dur­ing World War I but re­turned with few prospects. Liv­ing a hard­scrab­ble, ten­ant farm­ing ex­is­tence, the fam­ily went on the county’s re­lief rolls in 1934, A New Deal in Dyess records.

Dur­ing his first 100 days in of­fice, Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt cre­ated — among oth­ers — the Fed­eral Emer­gency Re­lief Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which be­came in­stru­men­tal in the cre­ation and sup­port of the Dyess Colony. Sim­i­lar colonies were cre­ated around the coun­try, in­clud­ing those in Alaska, South Carolina and West Vir­ginia.

(In fact, trav­eler Mary Jo Brown from Corn­wall, Pa., vis­ited the His­toric Dyess Colony in July be­cause she was in­ter­ested in WPA projects, she said. The fact that this colony was also home to Johnny Cash came as a sur­prise when she ar­rived.)

Poor fam­i­lies on re­lief could pur­chase farm­land with a 30-year loan, and the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion was cre­ated to put un­em­ployed to work on pub­lic ser­vice projects — in­clud­ing the build­ing of com­mu­nity cen­ters, roads,

drainage and houses in Dyess.

“Ad­min­is­tra­tor of both FERA and the WPA in Arkansas, Wil­liam R. Dyess, ob­tained fed­eral funds to turn thou­sands of acres of Mis­sis­sippi County wet­lands into what he hoped would be­come a model agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity,” writes Hawkins in A New Deal in Dyess. “Work on the colony for­mally be­gan on May 22, 1934,” when crews ar­rived to clear the wilder­ness.

The colony was laid out with a town cen­ter at the hub and farm­steads stretch­ing out from that hub. The crews built an ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing as well as com­mer­cial build­ings.

The “Col­o­niza­tion Project No. 1” was re­named in his Dyess’ honor af­ter he died in a plane crash in 1936.


Ray Cash learned about the op­por­tu­nity in the Dyess Colony from a ra­dio an­nounce­ment.

“We heard we could buy 20 acres with­out any money down, a house and a barn, and they would give us a mule, a cow, fur­nish groceries through the year un­til we had a crop and could pay it back,” Johnny Cash was quoted in A New Deal in Dyess.

“Prospec­tive Dyess colonists had to fill out a de­tailed ques­tion­naire, fol­lowed by an ex­ten­sive per­sonal in­ter­view and eval­u­a­tion by a field worker,” reads a panel in the mu­seum. “Re­fer­rals came from county su­per­vi­sors, and pref­er­ence was given to those ages 25 to 45, who did not have more than six chil­dren, given lim­i­ta­tions on house sizes. Once ten­ta­tively ap­proved, prospec­tive

colonists were brought to Dyess on an in­spec­tion tour, where they could pick out their house and get their re­quired phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion in the colony hos­pi­tal. If all went well, gov­ern­ment trucks were dis­patched to move them to the colony, where they were on pro­ba­tion for a year.”

“Colonists who ar­rived at Dyess had lots of sur­prises, be­gin­ning with the dif­fi­culty of con­vert­ing the land to agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion,” reads an ac­com­pa­ny­ing panel. “It could take 30 days to clear an acre. While the soil was in­deed fer­tile, it pre­sented chal­lenges few had pre­vi­ously en­coun­tered.

“Known as ‘black gumbo,’ with a high clay con­tent, it could only be worked un­der cer­tain weather con­di­tions. If too wet, it was a sticky tar and clogged up the equip­ment. If too dry, it cracked wide open and was like chip­ping away at a rock.”

“Af­ter their two-day jour­ney in a truck (from Kings­land, north­west of Fordyce, Johnny’s birth­place), the Cash fam­ily pulled into Dyess in March 1935,” reads A New Deal in Dyess. Like other colonists, they saw there a chance to lift the fi­nan­cial des­per­a­tion that hung over them like a burial shroud.

“Though perched on soggy ground and sur­rounded by swamp, the re­cently con­structed white house with green trim looked to the Cash fam­ily like the Promised Land Johnny sang about.”

“Mom cried when she saw the house. This was the

first new house she’d every owned,” Johnny Cash says in a re­mem­brance video.

The Cash fam­ily’s first har­vest in­clude three bales of cot­ton, seed corn and gar­den veg­eta­bles — suf­fi­cient for their first an­nual pay­ment for land and im­prove­ments amount­ing to $111.41. The fam­ily also man­aged to pay its other out­stand­ing debts, ac­cord­ing to A New Deal in Dyess.

“The first re­quire­ment for the Dyess colony mem­bers was cre­at­ing a gar­den, along with a potato and corn patch, for pro­duc­ing and can­ning for the fam­ily,” reads a panel in the His­toric Dyess Colony Mu­seum.

“Colonists were en­cour­aged to grow toma­toes, snap beans, li­mas, beets, cu­cum­bers, peas, pep­pers and spinach. Ev­ery­one was ex­pected to have a flock of chick­ens (40 to 60 per fam­ily), a brood sow and at least one milk cow. The cash crop was cot­ton, but colonists also grew al­falfa and sorghum to feed live­stock.”

At the colony’s for­mal ded­i­ca­tion on May 22, 1936, many ma­jor im­prove­ments had been com­pleted, in­clud­ing 500 farm­houses, reads A New Deal in Dyess. A per­ma­nent ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing stood at the colony’s cen­ter, and nearby, a can­nery, cot­ton gin, com­mis­sary, com­mu­nity build­ing, post of­fice, cafe and hos­pi­tal. First Lady Eleanor Roo­sevelt vis­ited Dyess a month later, giv­ing her sup­port and praise.

But the times weren’t all good. Pol­i­tics in­vaded the colony’s sup­port or­ga­ni­za­tions, and colonists were be­lat­edly given vary­ing

terms for the pur­chase of their houses and farms.

A 1937 flood found many of the colonists evac­u­at­ing, some never to re­turn. The Cash fam­ily evac­u­ated, but Ray and his old­est son Roy stayed and later bought the 20-acre farm­stead ad­join­ing his, Ulmer said. This flood led to Johnny Cash’s hits “Five Feet High and Ris­ing” and “Big River Blues.”

“Dyess Colony had reached its peak in the late 1930s” with a pop­u­la­tion of 2,500, “and steadily de­clined there­after,” com­pared to to­day’s 400, Ulmer said.

“As pri­vate sec­tor em­ploy­ment grew dur­ing the in­dus­trial ramp-up to World War II, the size of the re­lief rolls de­creased,” Hawkins wrote in his book. “The fed­eral gov­ern­ment grew less and less in­ter­ested in re­set­tle­ment pro­grams as its fo­cus shifted to threats posed by Ger­many and Ja­pan.

“Most peo­ple soon for­got that Dyess, Arkansas … had been a part of a large so­cial ex­per­i­ment. Des­per­ate farm­ers who sought a place there be­lieved the colony of­fered life in a promised land — and many said it did. How­ever, af­ter mov­ing to the com­mu­nity, some con­sid­ered it a land of bro­ken prom­ises.

“Although Dyess Colony came and went that way, it is still re­mem­bered fondly by many men and women who lived there, and what they en­dured sur­vives in songs sung by a man dressed in black.”


is open for tours through the His­toric Dyess Colony and Arkansas State Univer­sity. Cash’s fam­ily came to Dyess dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion to farm for sub­sis­tence, in­come and the pur­chase of their house and 20 acres. This five-room house was one of about 500 built by men work­ing through the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion.


The pi­ano of Car­rie Cash (Johnny’s mother) sits promi­nently in the liv­ing room at Dyess. “We’d gather around mother’s old up­right pi­ano,” said Joanne Cash Yates, Johnny’s sis­ter, in the book A New Deal in Dyess. “Mama played the pi­ano. She didn’t know a note of mu­sic, but she could hear a song once and play it.”


The Dyess Colony Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing, com­pleted in 1936, has been re­stored to house the Dyess Colony Mu­seum, along with mu­nic­i­pal of­fices for the city of Dyess. Ex­hibits fo­cus on the his­tory of the colony, life­styles of colonists, the Cash fam­ily as typ­i­cal colonists and the im­pact of grow­ing up in Dyess on Johnny Cash and his mu­sic.


Johnny Cash’s youngest brother, Tommy, ran the pro­jec­tor at the Dyess Colony theater in the 1950s, and his name is carved into this pro­jec­tor with the date Oct. 5, 1955. Tommy Cash pur­sued his own mu­sic ca­reer, with top 10 and top 20 sin­gles in the 1970s, ac­cord­ing to a panel in the Dyess Colony Mu­seum. He con­tin­ues to per­form around the world.

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