In May 1934, “Colonization Project No. 1” was established in southwestern Mississippi County and named for W. R. Dyess, Arkansas’s first Works Progress Administration head, who suggested the idea of giving tenant farmers the opportunity to purchase their own land. The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out from the middle. There were 500 small farmhouses, each with five rooms and an adjacent barn, privy, and chicken coop. The houses were whitewashed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a dining room, plus a front and back porch. The colony provided housing and opportunity to countless people who yearned for a better life.
One such family was led by Ray and Carrie Cash, who left Kingsland, Ark., in 1935 with their seven children and headed more than 200 miles north to Dyess Colony Resettlement Area in Mississippi County. Young J.R., who would eventually become known worldwide as Johnny, was only three years old when the family arrived in Dyess, AR. The Man in Black would later say that many of his early songs, like “Five Feet High and Rising,” were inspired by his time in Dyess. He left the community in 1950 to join the Air Force after graduating from high school.
Arkansas State University purchased the home and began work on restoring the house as it would have been the day the Cash family first saw it. Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home opened to the public in August 2014 and includes tours of the Cash home and the Dyess Colony Administration Building. The administration building was the centerpiece for one of the nation’s agricultural resettlement colonies under the New Deal. Following the restoration, the Cash home appears furnished as it was when the Cash family lived there, while the Administration Building includes exhibits about the colony and the impact of Dyess on Johnny Cash and his music. The project is a joint effort between the City of Dyess and Arkansas State University. Other buildings will be restored or recreated in the future to preserve this part of Arkansas and American heritage.