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A second chance for Johnny Cash's childhood home

Under the guidance of Arkansas State University, fund-raising and restoration is well under way with the ultimate goal of returning rundown Dyess, Ark., to some of its former glory.

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Known as "Historic Dyess: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash", the visitor attraction hopes to tell the story of Dyess and how it produced not only Johnny Cash, but also fellow country stars Gene Williams and Buddy Jewell, as well as a string of other successful individuals, including  current Arkansas Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell. A biking and walking trail connecting the center of Dyess with the Cash farmstead is also planned.

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“Dyess was an agricultural resettlement project under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tried to give destitute families a new start in life,” Ms Hawkins says. “There were 16,000 acres of land divided into 20- to 40-acre farms. The 500 families who went there would eventually pay the government back through the proceeds of their crops and own the land.

“Rae and Carrie Cash [Johnny’s parents] were one of them. They just happened to have a little boy named J.R. who grew up to be Johnny Cash.”

The cost of the restoration project is estimated at $3.2 million, of which $1.4 million has already been raised through state grants and the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival.

Parts of the colony administration building – set to feature museum exhibits on family life in Dyess after the Depression, the impact the colony had on Cash’s music, and the local lifestyle – along with the Cash boyhood home are expected to open in September of next year. The Cash farmstead will also see the reconstruction of the plot’s original outbuildings, including a chicken coop, a smokehouse, and a barn – which together with the cotton fields were among the places that directly impacted favorite Cash songs such as “Five Feet High and Rising” and “Pickin’ Time,” Hawkins says.

To ensure the home closely replicates how it looked during the time the Cash family lived on the property, Johnny’s surviving siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, are acting as consultants.

Taking the lead is Joanne, who lived in the house for the first 17 years of her life. “I, being a woman, know where every table, every lamp, every bed was – even the colors of the walls,” she says.

“We are rebuilding some of the inside that has been changed over the years, and the foundation of the house has been restored, so now it looks like it did when we lived there,” she says. She will also be involved in finding furniture that closely matches what the family had in the home, providing direction for  re-positioning of trees to the spots where they stood during the Cash family's tenure, and helping pinpoint the spots where the outbuildings were located, she says.

Mayor Sims credits “Walk the Line,” the 2005 biopic of Johnny’s life, with putting Dyess on the map. It has only been during the last eight years, he adds, that the town has “slowly started coming back” – a timeline that roughly coincides with the film and the first local efforts to develop a visitor attraction.

The fact that, today, almost a decade after his death, Cash is playing such a pivotal role in the resuscitation of his hometown is not lost on those involved – but neither is the symbolic significance of those prisoners tending the grounds outside city hall.

His sister Joanne says that would have appealed to Cash, who wore black to represent life’s downtrodden. “Even though Johnny was worldwide famous,” she says, “he did not look at himself as being someone special. He said to me before he passed away, ‘I wonder if no one would really miss me or really care.’ I think he would be overwhelmed.“

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