On a fine sunny day in late summer, a prison work gang is busy clearing litter from the grounds around Dyess City Hall in the heart of town, providing a portentous sign.
This settlement of just a few hundred, created during the Depression as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal project, is the childhood home to that well-known advocate of the incarcerated, country music legend Johnny Cash.
The figurative relevance of the low-risk prisoners (guilty of minor crimes), who are frequent visitors according to the Dyess mayor, runs deep.
Perhaps more than most places, Dyess, located in Mississippi County, Ark., a short drive west of the Mississippi River, is all about second chances: Back in the 1930s, the brand-new government colony was a second chance for the Cash family after the economic ravages of the Depression and the poverty of their former home in Kingsland, Ark.
Today, Dyess is poised on the precipice of a second chance of its own.
Under the guidance of Arkansas State University, fund-raising and restoration is well under way in the settlement with the ultimate goal of returning rundown Dyess to some of its former glory – this time as a tourist attraction. One of the centerpieces, and almost certainly the biggest draw, is set to be Cash's boyhood home, a farmstead on the edge of town.
The colony-turned-city is a dilapidated shadow of the vibrant farming community it once represented. Back then it was buttressed by the bounty of cotton fields and a population that topped out at about 3,000. The area has been in decline since the end of World War II, a process that accelerated in the 1960s and '70s as locals struggled to survive on the flood-prone land, says Dyess Mayor Larry Sim.
These days, the cotton is long gone. There are fewer than 500 inhabitants, and the town is located in a region that statistics indicate is one of the most economically deprived in the nation: In Mississippi County, 25.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 13.8 percent nationally, according to US Census Bureau data.
Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites, the office at Arkansas State University in nearby Jonesboro that leads the project, hailed the restoration as a potential boon for the local economy. The project also includes the transformation of the old administration building into a museum and new home for city hall.
“It is projected this is going to have a major impact on the Arkansas Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country,” she explains. "We are focusing on the heritage of the town – not just Johnny Cash but historic Dyess itself. We project about 30,000 to 50,000 visitors a year. We are looking [at creating] 100 new jobs and about $10 million in [annual] revenue for this area.”
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.
“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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