Larry Sims wasn’t a
Johnny Cash fan growing up
He was raised with his 12 brothers and sisters about a quarter-mile from the old Cash place in Dyess, and to him the experience seemed too everyday to be noteworthy.
“It was like growing up next door to Elvis,” said Sims, who spent 12 years as Dyess mayor and is now a meticulous custodian of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and a knowledgeable tour guide at the Historic Dyess Colony.
The Dyess Colony is shown divided into plots in this map created in 1936.
“When Johnny came back for a big homecoming in 1968, I didn’t even see the show. I was a teenager then, and we were getting ready to get the cotton crop in.” But Sims, a former Dyess mayor who has worked for Arkansas State University for a couple of years as facilities manager at the heritage site, eventually came to love the words and music of the Man in Black, just as he loves the black-dirt lowlands from which they both sprang.
An Experiment in Socialism
The words, numbers and dollar signs tumble out when Sims describes the Dyess Colony, the largest federal agriculture resettlement program of the New Deal era, and essentially an experiment in American socialism.
Though it lasted only a decade, the colony gave hundreds of rural Arkansas families hope during the darkest days of the Depression. The handpicked farm families got new houses, 20 or 40 acres to farm, animals and groceries, all for no money down. Schools and churches were built, and a hospital provided settlers some of the best health care in all of rural Arkansas.
“The government came here with 1,300 men to create a town out of a snake-filled swamp,” Sims said, describing the project’s birth in 1934. “It was socialism, you know. The government bought the land, improved it, built the roads and the houses. W.R. Dyess gave the town its name.”
The first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, toured Dyess on June 9, 1936, visiting with locals and eating supper at the Dyess Café.
William Reynolds Dyess was a Delta farmer and businessman who became director of the Arkansas Emergency Relief Administration. His dream was to build a self-supporting agriculture colony in the Delta for destitute farmers, and it was becoming a reality when he died in a plane crash in 1936. The colony was renamed in his honor.
With $3 million in federal aid, “the government got nearly 16,000 acres at a cost of $3 an acre,” Sims said.”Settlers were upset later when they were charged $15 an acre. Now it’s some of the best land in Arkansas. Today it would cost $4,000 an acre, if you could find any for sale.”
At great effort, laborers making 30 cents an hour drained the land, cut a series of muddy roads and built the 500 farm cottages, which were worth about $1,500 each and highly prized.
“There was great competition for places,” said Ruth Hawkins, the director of Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites. “Families had to prove they had been successful farmers before the Depression. They knew farming; they had just been wiped out by disasters.”
Resettlement applications collected meticulous details on the colonists. Questionnaires asked about health problems, family friction and even any evidence of “hereditary weaknesses, physical or mental.”
The town operated as a cooperative, with seed purchased and crops sold communally. Families got a share of profits from crops and the Dyess cannery and general store.
“Women would make little dolls for the store to sell,” said Sims, pointing to an exhibit including one of the dolls and a sample of the local scrip, called doodlum, that settlers used for currency. Settlers received instruction in hygiene, including suggestions for brushing their teeth twice daily with baking soda, wearing clean underwear daily and washing their hair twice a month.
War Takes Its Toll
But as World War II offered greater employment opportunities, most of Dyess’ residents left for military service or defense factory work, never to return. By 2010, only 410 residents remained in the town, which had incorporated in 1964. The Historic Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash Boyhood Home opened on Aug. 16, 2014.
Sims credited much of the early restoration effort to another big music-business figure from Dyess, Gene Williams.
Williams, who was about six years younger but knew Cash in school, donated “the first $50,000” to the Dyess restoration drive, Sims said. Williams had found success as a Memphis disc jockey before building a diverse business career as a TV personality, radio station owner and one of the original country music entrepreneurs in Branson, Missouri. His weekly live broadcast from Branson, sponsored by Lucas Oil Products Inc., was beamed to 173 stations across the nation. Williams died in 2011.
Last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson committed $100,000 to the Dyess redevelopment project, and a performance by Johnny Cash’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, raised an additional $20,000.
“As we promote tourism, we recognize that a significant part of the future tourism in this state is our heritage sites, including the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess,” Hutchinson said. “I am delighted that the state can continue to support these sites for the next generation.”
The current generation in Dyess is still awaiting business development. The town has only two real businesses beyond farming: Bailey’s Grocery and Long’s Auto Repair.
Kandice Bailey, who with her husband, Jeff, owns the grocery store about a block from the Colony Center, says the town has declined in the 11 years they’ve had the 70-year-old store. But she’s excited about the heritage festival. “We’re hoping it brings us some revenue. They’ve had shows before at the old community center, but that’s farther away and I’m not sure people knew we were here. With events right here in the middle of Dyess, we’re thinking it will bring people in. I doubt if the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival will cause people to move here, but we’re expecting it to help business while the visitors are here.”
The Historic Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash Boyhood Home are just part of Arkansas State University’s heritage sites, which seek to support tourism while educating visitors about unique and important places in the history of eastern Arkansas.
Dyess is the most popular with visitors, attracting some 10,000 a year with more expected now that the Visitors’ Center and new signage are in place. 110 Center Drive, Dyess, (870) 764-2274
But not too far behind is the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum & Education Center in Piggott (Clay County) at the northern end of the scenic Crowley’s Ridge Parkway. The center, which attracts some 8,000 annual visitors, includes a barn studio used by Ernest Hemingway and the family home of Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Hemingway wrote parts of one of his most famous novels, “A Farewell to Arms,” in Piggott. 1021 W. Cherry St., Piggott, (870) 598-3487
Near Dyess in the town of Tyronza (Poinsett County) is the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, dedicated to knowledge and understanding of the tenant farming and agriculture labor movements in the Mississippi River Delta. Tyronza was the home to one of the first integrated agriculture labor organizations, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. 117 S. Main St., Tyronza, (870) 487-2909
The Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center, an affiliate of the A-State sites supported in conjunction with other Arkansas colleges, tells of a World War II executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that led to the roundup of thousands of Japanese-Americans who were held in detention camps. Up to 8,000 were kept behind barbed wire at a 500-acre camp in Rohwer (Desha County). Few visible signs of the camp still exist, but the detainees’ stories live on in nearby McGehee. 100 S. Railroad St., McGehee, (870) 222-9168
Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village (Chicot County) in the Lower Delta is Arkansas’ only remaining antebellum plantation home along the Mississippi River. Built in 1859, the Greek Revival structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and given to A-State by the Sam Epstein Angel family in 2001. After five years of restoration, it was opened to the public. 601 Highway 142, Lake Village,(870) 265-6031