MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, Ark. (WMC) – The legendary Johnny Cash gave Channel 5 a shout out when he sang about his ‘Little Old Home Town’.
So it gives us even more pleasure to give “The Man in Black” his own 5-star honors, especially the colony where he grew up.
As we spotlight the people and places that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, this stop is about the Dyess Colony in Arkansas, which is one of four UNESCO-sponsored heritage sites. Arkansas State University (ASU).
From about 1929 to 1939 it was like a ring of fire to many in the United States. Nearly half of all banks failed and millions of people were out of work during the greatest economic recession in the history of the industrialized world. And Mother Nature hasn’t always helped, especially in Arkansas.
“You had the floods of ’27, the stock market crash, and then you had the Great Depression and just awful conditions,” recalled Penny Toombs, ASU Heritage Site Director.
As part of the “New Deal” to help struggling urban and rural white families, the federal government moved them into planned agricultural resettlement communities. Dyess Colony in Mississippi County, Arkansas, established in 1934, was one of them.
According to ASU, the Dyess Colony provided a fresh start for hundreds of poor Arkansas farmers, like the family of perhaps the state’s most famous native son, Johnny Cash.
Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family of six children into the house in 1935 when Cash, then called JR, was three years old. The Cash house was No. 266 out of 500 small two-bedroom houses, each with 20-40 acre plots of land for farming.
Toombs showed us around the renovated Cash house, which is one of the few remaining houses authentically furnished under the direction of the surviving Cash siblings.
“On the flower boxes at the front of the house, we keep some purple in there because that’s what the kids always remember being here,” Toombs explained.
There was an outbuilding at the back of the house, as well as a chicken coop and a smokehouse. There is also a quilt rack hoisted to the ceiling of the living room, “where the women used to work on it. They would knock it down and when they were done, they would put it back up to make space, Toombs said.
The piano played by Cash’s mother is in the house with the songbook open to one of his favorite songs, “Unclouded Day.”
The Dyess settlement was built on approximately 16,000 acres of formerly swampy and forested land that these families drained and cleared themselves.
“After the New Madrid earthquake, there was an area in northeast Arkansas that included Dyess, which became known as ‘The Sunklands’ or ‘Sunken Lands of St. Francis'” , described Toombs.
Two miles from the Cash house is Colony Circle which was once the social center of the area where families could buy necessities.
“It was all in that area of the center circle,” Toombs said.
The old cinema and pop shop look the same today from the outside, but inside they now serve as a visitor center and first stop on the tour. Next to it and still standing is the administration building of the Dyess settlement.
“Eleanor Roosevelt actually got up on that platform, that porch, and gave a speech at the opening of Dyess Colony,” Toombs recounted as we stood in front of the building.
Inside, you’ll find exhibits related to the development of the colony, the lifestyle of the residents, and the impact growing up in Dyess had on the music of Jo Cash. For example, Cash wrote a song called “5 Feet High and Rising” 20 years after the Mississippi River flooded and the levies broke in 1937, forcing his family and most other residents of the colony to evacuate until what the water recedes. His upbringing in Dyess also likely played a role in his preference for black clothing as a sign of rebellion and solidarity with the oppressed.
“I wear black for the poor and the downcast…living in the desperate, hungry side of town…” Cash sang in “Man in Black”.
“He represents them with his voice,” Toombs added.
A voice that captured the hardships and hearts of a Mid-South community and cemented Cash’s place in the American songbook – all the more reason to be proud of where we call home.
Cash lived in the Dyess Colony home until he graduated from high school in 1950. He died in Nashville on September 12, 2003. He was 71. In addition to tours of Cash’s childhood home and the Dyess settlement, ASU’s Heritage Sites office offers a combination tour of Dyess and the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in nearby Tyronza. This office also seeks to expand its educational reach and invites school groups to contact them for tours and special programs.
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