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Hundreds pay tribute to Johnny Cash at 80th birthday celebration


By Nan Snider

Hundreds of fans, friends and family members of the late Johnny Cash gathered in his hometown of Dyess on Sunday, February 27, to pay tribute to what would have been his 80th birthday. The event, hosted by Arkansas State University, began at 2 p.m. to launch the restoration of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and the Dyess Colony projects.Cash Family

The tribute featured Cash family members singing and offering personal tributes and reminiscences, to kick off the restoration of the resident of Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash from 1935 until 1954.

Weeks of preparation proved to be successful as visitors traveled great distances to take part in the tribute held at the Dyess Community Center, which formerly served as the Dyess High School gymnasium.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Studies has spearheaded the campaign to bring attention to the historic Dyess Colony where Cash grew up and the restoration of his boyhood home, west of town.

The birthday tribute was used to launch a national fund-raising campaign for the Dyess project, with events held around the United States.

“A national advisory council composed of Cash family members and people from the music and entertainment business has been established, along with an Arkansas steering committee, which will help to organize events within the Mid-South area,” Hawkins said.

Family representatives to the National Advisory Council were announced, and include Johnny Cash’s children and nine other family members. Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash will serve as Co-Chairmen, along with siblings Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, and Tara Cash Schwoebel, and Cash’s sister Joanne Cash Yates and brother Tommy Cash. Nine other Cash family members and their spouses will serve on the council. Fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson will serve as honorary co-chairmen of the national council, along with twelve other well-known advisors.

The Arkansas Steering Committee will be co-chaired by Mike and Marsha Gibson, with Cash’s high school classmates A. J. Henson and J. E. Huff serving as Honorary Co-chairs. Twelve other area supporters will complete the Arkansas team.

Cash family members and friends took part in a full day of activities on Sunday, beginning with a private luncheon at the historic Cox-Florida Mansion, in Osceola, hosted by ASU and owners Gene and Barbara Cox.

“We are thrilled to have the Cash family in our home,” said Gene Cox. “We have been fans of Johnny Cash all our lives, and want to be a part of this special celebration and launch.”

The birthday tribute began at 2 p.m. at the Dyess Community Center, on Highway 297 at the entrance to the city. A full slate of musical entertainment took place to the school gymnasium, as family members used the informal setting to share special songs and memories of their time spent with Johnny Cash.

Rosanne Cash told of the birth of her father in Kingsland, AR, and the families move to Dyess Colony in 1935. Rosanne Cash and  brother John Carter Cash sang two of their father’s favorite songs,  “Come home it’s supper time” and “No one gets out of here alive,”            

“Many people say you can’t go back home again,” said Joanne Cash Yates. “But Tommy and I can go back when the house is restored. Dr. Ruth (Hawkins) walked us from room to room in our home place asking us where Mother had the table, the sink, the stove, her sewing machine, and especially her piano. I got such a joy out of playing that piano again today.”

The upright piano belonging to Carrie Cash was located and preserved by Dyess Mayor Larry Sims and will be a part of the Cash home furnishings.

“We were raised on cotton, popcorn, peanuts, and Jesus,” said Mrs. Yates. She sang a song by the same name.

Steering Committee Co-Chairman Mike Gibson invited the Cash family members to unveil a special concrete pillar retrieved from the Cash home, with a special inscription that read “Established 1935—re-established 2012.” The unveiling marked the official launch of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home project.

Following the tribute, family members boarded a Rivercrest High School bus to travel to the former Cash home, a mile west of Dyess on county road #924.

“The house is currently under construction,” said Dr. Hawkins. “In order to preserve the home it was necessary to move the house, and dig out the gumbo soil beneath. A new concrete slab will be poured and the house will be placed on a new foundation.”

“ASU has been very diligent in their restoration plans, attending to every detail of the houses authenticity,” said Mayor Sims. “They took GPS readings to mark the exact location of the house, before they moved it, to make sure it gets put back in the same location afterwards. The lot has been fenced and a security system is in place for added security while the work is being completed on the house.”

“The house that Johnny Cash lived in from the time he was three years old until he graduated from high school (1935-1950) will be restored to accurately convey the family’s lifestyle in Dyess,” said Dr. Hawkins. “The house will be furnished as it was during the 1930’s and 1940’s, based on recollections of family members.”

The Dyess Colony was established in 1934 as one of the nation’s first agricultural resettlement communities under Roosevelt’s New Deal. Five hundred families were selected to relocate to the colony, in Mississippi County. Today, this community has dropped from its peak population of 2,500in 1936 to 410 in the 2010 census. Arkansas State University is working to preserve the town’s heritage with a Master Plan that includes restoring the Johnny Cash boyhood home and re-establishing the Dyess Colony Center.

Overall restoration and construction project plans include the Cash home, homestead outbuildings, visitor center, Dyess Colony theatre, Administration Building, walking/biking trail, and addition of historical markers.

The Cash family lingered long at the home site, and shared remembrances as sunset neared. The sun may have gone down on the special birthday tribute day, but it is the dawning of a new day indeed for all those who have worked so hard to launch the restoration of Dyess Colony and erect a lasting memorial to one of its brightest stars—Johnny Cash.

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Pictured from left: Tommy Cash, Joanne Cash Yates, Cindy Cash, John Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash.