Sarah Hunt learned how to drive on Mississippi County Road 940. The gravel expanse passes a dilapidated house, a relic from the Depression era. Locals in the town of Dyess used to whisper how a rock-n-roll forefather spent his childhood in the dwelling, more shack than home after many years of hard use.
Hunt and her high school classmates often drove by the house and many couldn’t fathom Johnny Cash spent his formative years on a sharecropper farm in the Dyess Colony, formed by the federal government in the 1930s to aid local farmers.
The colony is long gone, but the house and the town remain. Residents hope this old house will turn into big tourism dollars in one of the poorest counties in the Mississippi Delta Region.
“It was awesome growing up here and listening to the stories,” Hunt told Talk Business & Politics. “Who could believe Johnny Cash grew up in Dyess?”
Cash left the sharecropper home in and joined the Air Force after World War II. His parents left the home in 1956. The structure was featured in the 2005 film, “Walk the Line,” a movie based on the musician’s life.
In 2011, Arkansas State University began a revitalization project. The dwelling was restored to its original condition, and an administrative building built into the old Colony theatre. The university turned the area into a heritage site and spent about $3.5 million on the entire project, Hunt said. She serves as the office manager in the administration building.
The southeast chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians selected Cash’s boyhood home as the 2016 “Best of the South” award winner. The honor is given to projects that preserve or restore a historic building or complex of buildings in an outstanding manner and that demonstrates excellence in research, technique, and documentation, according to the Society.
THE CASH STORY
Ray and Carrie Cash brought his family to the Dyess Colony in 1935, according to historians. The Cashes moved to Dyess with their five children, Roy, 13; Louise, 11; Jack, 5; J. R., 3; and Reba, 1. Children Joanne and Tommy were born in Dyess.
Drought, sporadic floods, and the Great Depression decimated family farms in the early 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt started what was then called a socialistic plan to help many of these farmers in eastern Arkansas.
At that time, the area was more swamp than usable farm ground. The swamp was drained and 500 farm families, including the Cash family received 40 acres and a mule through a federal government aid program. Rice and cotton became viable crops in the soil. Johnny Cash, along with his brother, Jack, worked the family farm and attended school, Hunt said. Work in the fields was grueling. At night, Johnny and Jack spent a lot of time in their room. Often their father forbade them to listen to the radio.
Johnny kept a poster of a wolf above his bed. He tore the poster out of a magazine he found. Johnny entertained his brother on these long and lonely nights with fantastical tales, and the wolf was always the central character, Hunt said.
“It’s one of my favorite stories about the Cash family,” she said.
Jack died in a wood cutting accident. Many have attributed Cash’s dark, brooding style to his brother’s untimely death. Johnny went on to serve in the military once he graduated from high school. He came home periodically to visit his parents. They moved to Memphis in 1956.
Cash returned to his old homestead years after he became an internationally famous musician with songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” and others. His battles with drug and alcohol were well documented, and he is often referred to as “The man in black,” a reference to his all black clothing attire he wore during performances.
During his return visit to the home, Cash noticed holes in the kitchen floor. He knew what caused the holes.
“He said an old stove burned holes in the floor,” Hunt said.
The home has been returned to its 1930’s look. Cash’s mother’s purse, with her own original possessions inside, sits on a vintage bed in one of the rooms. A quilting rack, the restored Cash family piano, and other authentic adornments have also been placed in the house. A wolf poster is there, too, Hunt said.
THE BUSINESS OF SELLING CASH
Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, joined ASU officials in May to announce the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival set for Oct. 19-21, 2017. Cash’s two living siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, also attended the announcement.
“For the first time, we will hold a festival in Dyess, in the cotton fields surrounding my dad’s childhood home and in the town center of the colony. We foresee an annual festival that will include both world-renowned artists on the main stage and local musicians on smaller stages, as well as educational panels, exhibits and local crafts,” Roseanne Cash said in May.
Even before the festival was announced, the Dyess Colony project has helped bring more tourists to Mississippi County. Although no actual studies have been conducted to calculate the economic impact, Hunt said, more than 700 visitors a month tour the house, administrative building, and grounds. Many of the visitors come from Memphis.
“A lot of them tell me they are on their way to or just came from Graceland,” she said.
Graceland is the Memphis home of one of Cash’s contemporary musicians, Elvis Presley. Cash, Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other musicians from that era played at bars, clubs, and other honky tonks along U.S. 67 from Newport to Pocahontas in the early and mid-1950’s. Musicians made more money in these rural venues than they did in bigger cities like Memphis, St. Louis, Little Rock, and others.
These small town venues allowed gambling, and local law enforcement turned a blind eye, according to historians. The additional revenue source allowed club owners to pay premium prices for musicians to entertain.
It’s been many years since Cash performed for crowds in the Northeast Arkansas. Hunt, and others associated with his boyhood home, hope he can still lure tourists. Mississippi County ranks last in Arkansas with an unemployment rate of 7.2%. The state has a 4% unemployment rate. The median income in the county in 2014 was $34,424 well below the national average of $51,939, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 27% of the estimated 46,000 residents in Mississippi County live in poverty, according to information released.
Mississippi County’s tourism industry has spiked since the home opened, according to the state. In 2014, county visitors spent $107,853,747 in travel related expenses, an 11% jump from the previous year. The total number of visitors spiked about 10% to 469,235.
The totality of the project’s economic impact may not be known at this time, but Hunt said she knows it has boosted the local economy. A gas station and restaurant not far from house are continuously crowded with locals and visitors, she said.
“We know this is having a positive impact,” she said.