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Dyess, Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Restoration Evoke Memories for Family


DYESS, Ark. — It was a perfect day, from the weather to the sites, as members of the Cash family, along with invited guests and members of the media, toured the Dyess area as part of the VIP Inspection Tour of “Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash,” Friday at Dyess Colony Circle. The boyhood home is among Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites.

Cash Family, Hawkins
(from left) Joanne Cash Yates, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Dr. Ruth Hawkins and Tommy Cash address the crowd from the front porch of the Dyess Administration Building. —Photo by Cara Prichard

The event was held at the newly restored Dyess Administration Building filled with exhibits about the Dyess Colony and a press conference with Johnny’s brother Tommy Cash, sister Joanne Cash Yates, and his daughter Tara Cash Schwoebel. Guests were shuttled back and forth to the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home for tours, and were treated to a country meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread and peach cobbler.

Cash family members were allowed a private tour of the home and were filled with emotion, memories, and storytelling.

“I lived the first 17 years of my life in that house,” said Joanne. “Little by little, every piece found its place. It has been a wonderful process. They say you can’t go back, but Tommy and I went back today and we thank everyone for that. Every item in the house is where it was then. What you see in the house is what we had. There were a whole lot of tears today, but it’s been such joy.

“Momma’s piano was such a peaceful thing for her to play. It was healing for her and to get away from the farm for a while. John would make cocoa, sugar fudge with peanuts, and sit and listen to the radio.”

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, head of the university’s Heritage Sites program, is guiding the restoration project. The project serves as a laboratory for Arkansas State students in the Heritage Studies Ph.D. program. Students have done much of the research and are assisting with oral history interviews, interpretation and programming, and other aspects of the project. The Administration Building and the Cash boyhood home represent the first phase of the master plan.

Other phases of the project include rebuilding the theater next to the Administration Building as a visitor/orientation center, re-creating the farmstead buildings at the Cash home (barn, smokehouse, chicken coop, and outhouse), developing a walking trail connecting the Cash home and the Town Center, building a caretaker home replicating an original colony house, and adding visitor services such as restrooms and parking.

“To say we’re overwhelmed with the restoration isn’t even close,” continued Joanne. “I want to thank everyone who worked so diligently. Tommy and I agree—it’s perfect.”

Tommy’s reaction was similar, “Thank you for sharing the passion I have for this community. We felt right at home when we walked through the door of the house. I felt like it was the 1940s and 1950s.”

Tara, Johnny’s youngest daughter, mentioned, “It was the first time I’ve been back since I stopped there with Dad years ago. He would be so moved and touched. He was a historian and he would be proud of the way everything has been presented. I’m so touched. The beauty and simplicity of the house in the chaos of today’s world is refreshing.”

The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home was part of a community established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s as a Depression-era agricultural resettlement colony. Part of the New Deal program, it provided an opportunity for destitute farmers, who were advanced 20 or 40 acres of farmland, a mule, a small home and money to buy food and plant crops—with the understanding that if they were successful they'd pay back the government.

Led by W. R. Dyess, Arkansas director of the Works Progress Administration, the federal government acquired approximately 16,000 acres and developed a Town Center and farmsteads for 500 colonist families recruited from the welfare rolls. Known initially as “Colonization Project No.1” it was renamed for Dyess in 1936 after his death in a plane crash.

In 2009, the Arkansas Legislature directed Arkansas State University to explore the feasibility of developing Dyess as a heritage tourism destination in an effort to revitalize the community. Toward this end, John Milner Associates of West Chester, Pa., completed a Dyess Redevelopment Master Plan in 2010.

Arkansas State acquired the boyhood home in 2011 that was appraised at $100,000, largely due to its historical significance. Its restoration and furnishing were done as it appeared between 1935 and 1954 when the Cash family lived there.

“This won’t be the last time we’re here,” continued Joanne. “We’re going to keep Highway 61 hot. It’s a new beginning for the family.”

Completion of the master plan for the project is estimated to cost approximately $5.59 million. To date, approximately $2.5 million has been raised. This includes $1.5 million from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities as a challenge grant, $140,000 from the Arkansas legislature, and $360,000 from festival proceeds and private contributions.

The Johnny Cash Boyhood Hometown Project is expected to draw approximately 50,000 visitors annually, resulting in nearly $10 million in tourism-related income to the region.

The Johnny Cash Music Festival is presented annually by Arkansas State University, with participation by the Cash family, to benefit the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project. The fourth music festival for 2014 is August 15 at 7 p.m. at the Arkansas State Convocation Center. As in years past, proceeds from this year’s event will help fund the restoration project, as well as support a scholarship fund established in the international superstar’s name.

The Dyess project will have its official grand opening August 16, 2014, the day following the music festival.

Reba McEntire, Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn will perform at this year’s festival, according to concert producer and festival founder Bill Carter. Legendary singer and comedian Mark Lowry will host the event.

Tickets for the Johnny Cash Music Festival are available at Arkansas State’s Central Box Office and online at www.tickets.astate.edu. Tickets can also be purchased by logging onto the official website of the Johnny Cash Music Festival, www.johnnycashmusicfest.com. Call to purchase tickets toll-free at 1-888-278-3267.