The community of Dyess, Arkansas stands to welcome music fans gladly with the opening of the Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash – a project undertaken by Arkansas State University’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program.
The property officially opened August 16 to the general public. The restoration of both properties has been spearheaded by Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University. Hawkins considers the home a keystone in work the program has done to enrich and uplift the eastern portion of the state.
“While the Arkansas Delta is poor economically, it has a rich heritage,” Hawkins stated. “At ASU, we are attempting to develop that heritage as a way to spur new investment in rural communities. Our sites are catalysts for bringing businesses back into dying downtown areas and creating new tourism-related businesses.”
JR Cash was three years old when his parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, moved to Dyess as part of the Dyess Colony Resettlement Area in 1935. The young boy grew up, went to church there and even suffered his first loss – when his beloved brother Jack died following a sawmill accident in 1944. Cash, who took the name Johnny when he went into the Air Force in 1950, would later tell audiences how many of his songs were influenced by his time at the home, including “Five Feet High and Rising.” He would go on to be considered one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century – and to be inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
Arkansas State University purchased Dyess Colony Home #266 in 2011 and has endeavored to restore the house as it would have been the day the Cash family moved in. Hawkins and her team have diligently restored every room, every surface to bring it back as near as possible, true to the memories of Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates.
The first round of work included briefly relocating the house to an adjacent lot, digging and pouring a concrete foundation and then repositioning the home on new supports. Once the roof was replaced and the shutters returned to their original green paint, a climate control system was discretely integrated through floor vents cut in the original hardwood and an accessibility ramp was added to the back of the home.
Inside, the wallpaper put in by a later tenant was removed, the doorways returned to their original locations, wood-burning stoves were re-situated and sinks and a tub from the same time period were added. The linoleum that graced some of the rooms of the house was removed and restored.
Some of the items, such as the piano that belonged to Johnny’s sister Carrie, were located and preserved and now sit in the home. Other items including cans for the pantry, furniture and quilts for beds were donated to the project by individuals.
Another portion of the project involved the restoration of the Dyess Administration Building, which still stands on the circle downtown. The building was gutted, updated and replumbed. Torth wing on the ground floor contains interpretation documenting the creation of the Dyess Colony and items from the people who moved there. One vault contains items that belonged to Johnny Cash, including an Air Force uniform and his Boy Scout identification.
Money for the project has come from several sources – including an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival now in its fourth year. The event, which takes place at Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center, features country music artists who donate their performances and in many cases their travel expenses as well. Proceeds from the annual celebration have raised $1.9 million dollars towards a goal of $3.2 million for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Hometown Project. Other funding has come from the Arkansas National and Cultural Resources Council, National Scenic Byways, a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant and by legislative special appropriation.
The ongoing enterprise of creating and maintaining the Historic Dyess Colony program is a joint effort between the City of Dyess and Arkansas State University. The master plan for the venture includes the recreation of another Dyess Colony home to house visitor services and restrooms; a walking and biking path between the Cash home and the Colony Center; and signage for previous colony structures that no longer exist, such as the hospital, gin, cannery and school. Work has already begun on the restoration of the historic Dyess Theatre adjacent to the Dyess Administration Building.
For more information about Arkansas Heritage Sites, Historic Dyess Colony: The Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash or the Johnny Cash Music Festival, contact Arkansas State University Historic Sites executive director Dr. Ruth Hawkins at (870) 972-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information can also be found at dyesscash.astate.edu.