Arkansas contains a wealth of music heritage roots… from being the birthplace of the blues to the preserving force of American Folk Music. Now one of our most famous natives, a man who covered everything from rock and roll to country and gospel, will be celebrated with a destination attraction that I expect will become the main stop of the musical pilgrimages of fans from all over.
Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash is a project undertaken by Arkansas State University’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program. The revitalized structures, which include the Dyess Administration Building and the actual home where the Cash family lived, were the center of activities at a special VIP event I attended on Friday, April 24th. There were more than 300 people there — including several members of the Cash Family.
They came to tour the structures, eat fried chicken and collard greens from Whitton Farms and rub elbows. They came in droves and parked at the old high school and rode the bus to the circle downtown, where a band jammed in front of the facade of the historic theater and a huge tent housed tables and chairs for oodles of folks enjoying their lunch.
After the breaking of bread, all the official duties were taken care of, with the Dyess Administration Building’s front as a stage. Then the Cash family climbed the steps en masse to greet all the people who had come for the special event.
Tommy Cash, the younger brother of Johnny Cash and a singer-songwriter himself, shared his appreciation for all the work put into the home. “Our family is overwhelmed with the wonderful work that’s been done here, and we are so grateful. I know that my brother Johnny Cash would be thrilled with all this that is honoring him and honoring our family.”
Joanne Cash Yates echoed his words… she told the crowd “I think Mama and Daddy would especially be so proud. I remember Mama saying one time when they lived in Hendersonville, ‘I don’t think I ever want to go back to Dyess, because the house don’t look like it used to look.’ But I think that maybe she’s looking down from heaven and saying, ‘maybe it does, too.‘”
Dr. Ruth Hawkins also spoke… she has spearheaded this project. The director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University has lead several Delta projects over the past decade and a half — including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center in Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza and Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village. She’s also been instrumental in work to preserve the site at the Rohwer Relocation Center National Historic Landmark, and has worked with countless sites and individuals across the Arkansas Delta region to to protect and interpret historic assets. Through ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program, many of these places have been preserved.
“While the Arkansas Delta is poor economically, it has a rich heritage,” says Hawkins. “At Arkansas State University, we are attempting to develop that heritage as a way to spur new investment in rural communities. Our heritage sites are catalysts for bringing businesses back into dying downtown areas and developing new tourism-related businesses.”
For the town of Dyess, that’s a substantial promise. There were 487 families relocated to the Dyess Colony in the couple of years after it opened in 1934. The 2010 census shows a population of just 402 individuals, and that number may have dwindled further these past four years. There’s not much at the moment — just the city hall, the “pop shop” that sells beverages and sandwiches across the road from the downtown circle, a kindergarten that operates in the old high school building. This attraction may be the thing that breathes new life into this old community.
Larry Sims is the mayor of Dyess. He’s hopeful. “I think it’s going to do a whole lot for the whole county,” he says. “People from all over the world will be coming to see Dyess and I think it’s going to make quite a difference for our area. They’re going to have a good experience and see what life was like all those years ago.”
There’s a real potential there, too. The numbers are impressive for communities already home to Arkansas Heritage Sites. Since the first venue, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in Piggott, opened in 1999, state tax revenues from travel/tourism expenditures in Clay County have increased by 74.7 percent (from $480,560 to $839,656). Poinsett County collections, where the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum is located, have increased by 42.6 percent (from $520,581 to $742,385) since the museum went online in 2006, and travel/tourism revenues in Chicot County, home to Lakeport Plantation, have increased by 41.6 percent (from $493,214 to $698,424) since it opened in 2007 – significant numbers, considering that many other counties in the Delta have seen reduced returns.
As you can see, the impact of Arkansas Heritage Sites has been substantial to the communities that host them. Joanne Bush, mayor of Lake Village, says the addition of Lakeport Plantation has added a new facet to tourism in the southeast Arkansas town. “The people that come to tour our city certainly have to eat and sleep somewhere – so it’s been a great asset to the city both as a tourist attraction and an economic development tool – because tourism is, of course, an industry. People who come to see Lakeport Plantation also shop at our stores and eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels.”
While Historic Dyess Colony isn’t currently open to the general public (that big day is August 16th), it is now available for group tours… you may not know this, but a typical motorcoach daytrip to an attraction brings approximately $3500 a day to a community – which includes attraction entry, meals eaten there and gift shop purchases made for an estimated 50 people per tour bus. For overnight stays, that number increases to approximately $5000 a day.
The bus tours are coming. Paula Miles, the assistant director for Arkansas Heritage Sites, says they’re on the way. “We have a number of group tour companies that are in contact with us, including three group tours already booked during May. There are overseas companies that want to put the Dyess project in their planning starting next year. Even without officially being open yet, we have drive-by visitors who leave messages for us from every continent, not to mention here in the States.”
In my job here at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, I handle media requests pertaining to places to go, see and do here in The Natural State. Journalists are curious folks (I should know!) and they want to know what’s going on so they can report about these cool things. Let me tell you what — the interest I’ve seen from folks contacting this office about the Historic Dyess Colony and what’s being done to preserve and showcase the life of Johnny Cash has been tremendous. Over the past several months, I’ve received just as many — if not more — requests for information about the boyhood home of Johnny Cash than I get for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art up in Bentonville. There’s a huge fanbase — which makes sense when you’re talking about the Man in Black.
JR Cash was three years old when his parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, moved to Dyess as part of the Dyess Colony Resettlement Area in 1935. The young boy grew up, went to church there and even suffered his first loss – when his beloved brother Jack died following a sawmill accident in 1944. Cash, who took the name Johnny when he went into the Air Force in 1950, would later tell audiences how many of his songs were influenced by his time at the home, including “Five Feet High and Rising.” He would go on to be considered one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century – and to be inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
Cash would mention Dyess during his performances — including this one:
In 2011, Arkansas State University purchased Dyess Colony Home #266 and has endeavored to restore the house as it would have been the day the Cash family moved in. Hawkins and her team have diligently restored every room, every surface to bring it back as near as possible, true to the memories of Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates. The first round of work included briefly relocating the house to an adjacent lot, digging and pouring a concrete foundation and then repositioning the home on new supports. Once the roof was replaced and the shutters returned to their original green paint, a climate control system was discretely integrated through floor vents cut in the original hardwood and an accessibility ramp was added to the back of the home.
Inside, the wallpaper put in by a later tenant was removed, the doorways returned to their original locations, wood-burning stoves were re-situated and sinks and a tub from the same time period were added. The linoleum that graced some of the rooms of the house was removed and restored.
Some of the items, such as the piano that belonged to Johnny’s sister Carrie, were located and preserved and now sit in the home. Other items including cans for the pantry, furniture and quilts for beds were donated to the project by individuals.
Another portion of the project involved the restoration of the Dyess Administration Building, which still stands on the circle downtown. The building was gutted, updated and replumbed – and the north wing on the ground floor contains interpretation documenting the creation of the Dyess Colony and items from the people who moved there. One vault contains items that belonged to Johnny Cash, including an Air Force uniform and his Boy Scout identification.
Money for the project has come from several sources – including an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival now in its fourth year. The event, which takes place at Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center, features country music artists who donate their performances and in many cases their travel expenses as well. Proceeds from the annual celebration have raised $1.9 million dollars towards a goal of $3.2 million for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Hometown Project.
Much of the funding for all of the Arkansas Historic Sites has come from grants and state entities. For instance, the Arkansas National and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) has been instrumental in providing funds for all of the sites, including $775,600 for the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center, $615,000 for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, $4,925,000 for Lakeport Plantation and $1,450,500 towards the Dyess Administration Project. Governor’s and legislative special appropriations have also gone to back these sites, and several national grants have been given, including funds from National Scenic Byways, Save America’s Treasures, Urban and Community Forestry Assistance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among others (source: Arkansas Heritage Sites website, http://arkansasheritagesites.astate.edu/AHS/funding.html).
The ongoing enterprise of creating and maintaining the Historic Dyess Colony program is a joint effort between the City of Dyess and Arkansas State University. The master plan for the venture includes the recreation of another Dyess Colony home to house visitor services and restrooms; a walking and biking path between the Cash home and the Colony Center; and historic signage for previous colony structures that no longer exist, such as the hospital, gin, cannery and school. Work has already begun on the restoration of the historic Dyess Theatre adjacent to the Dyess Administration Building.
In the end, this project should be good on several fronts. For fans, it’s a pilgrimage to make, and they’ll make it (if you’ve ever been to Graceland, you understand how music fans will flock to walk where the stars have tread). For Dyess, it’s an opportunity to bring more money into the community and perhaps spur businesses, restaurants and maybe even a hotel. And for the Arkansas Delta, it’s a keystone, the great link connecting the other Arkansas Heritage Sites and other attractions, both for music lovers and for those exploring what eastern Arkansas has to offer.
My boss, ADPT executive director Richard Davies, looks at it as Arkansas’s own Field of Dreams. “This very well may be a true ‘build it and they will come’ situation,” Davies elaborates. “The proximity to the other music related attractions in that area of the Delta will help all of them, and also help Dyess.”
Tracy Morales, ADPT’s group travel manager, has her office right next door to mine. She’s been talking about the itineraries already being built for Delta travelers — and for music fans, who will go great distances to check out important locations in music history. She points out how Graceland visitors could just cross the river into Arkansas and make their own connections between The King and The Man In Black. “When I go to shows all across the country, I tell people ‘If you think Elvis is great at Graceland, I have something better!” Morales states. “With Johnny Cash and the Historic Dyess Colony, this may be the attraction that opens up Arkansas to tour operators like never before.” Graceland and Historic Dyess Colony are just 57 miles apart. Tracy mentioned to me how tour operators might tie in the Johnny Cash Museum, the Grand Old Opry and Cowboy Church in Nashville with the Loretta Lynn Ranch at Hurricane Mills; STAX Museum, Sun Studios and Graceland in Memphis; the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena and the Beatles Walk in Walnut Ridge.
Makes sense to me — to tie the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson and the Johnny Cash Museum and Event Space in Nashville to Historic Dyess Colony. Once Cash fans are in Arkansas, they can also head up to see the interpretation at the Guitar Walk in Walnut Ridge that includes Cash’s ties to the juke joints that once lined Rock N’ Roll Highway 67 — or go to Texarkana and find the Municipal Auditorium there where Cash used to perform.
For now, I’m excited. I’m curious to meet some of the individuals who come over from overseas — and from the other side of the Mississippi County line — to view where Johnny Cash used to sit by his bedroom window, listening to the music of Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and Louis Jordan and to the wind crossing the Delta… absorbing the notes that would one day inspire his own distinctive sound.