Hundreds of supporters and fans joined the family of Arkansas music legend Johnny Cash in the dedication of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess. Saturday’s event was the culmination of five years of work, when the project started in 2009. At that time, 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 town. In 2011, Arkansas State University acquired the boyhood home of Johnny Cash, and the ASU Heritage Studies program, under the direction of Dr. Ruth Hawkins, started the restoration process. Graduate students in the heritage studies program conducted the research, assisted in oral history interviews, interpretation and programming of the project. Dr. Hawkins has worked with the Cash family to make sure that every detail of the house was brought back to life. Hawkins tells about what some of the challenges were involving saving the dilapidated house.
“The key challenge was that this was gumbo soil. That means it rolls, it moves, it shifts. If you look around town, you will see that a lot of houses are not level because of that, and that is what happened to the Cash home,” said Hawkins. “It literally had sunk into the ground. Those concrete piers turned and had sunk into the ground, so there was a lot of rot into the wood sills. We had to move it off of its foundation, dig a pit about eight feet deep and remove all of the gumbo soil. We then had to fill it with better draining soil. Then we dug a trench around the home about two-feet wide and pour concrete to create that as a base. We then covered that with dirt. Those concrete piers are now sitting on the concrete foundation. Literally, most of our money went into the ground.”
Members of Cash’s family went through the house during a VIP event that took place in April. Those family members returned to the house Saturday, along with Rosanne Cash. Rosanne was not able to attend the April event due to her touring schedule. She was on hand for the dedication ceremony and went through the house Saturday morning. She expressed her thoughts to the media during a press conference Saturday morning.
“I saw the house in 2011 when Arkansas State University purchased it. It was inconceivable that it could look as it does today,” stated Cash. “We were very worried that the house would be on the ground before Dr. Hawkins’ team could get to it. So, to see the progress over the past couple of years to seeing it today was a revelation. To see all of the rooms completely restored as they were to the most meticulous historic detail is unbelievable. From Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tom’s recollection of how the house used to look, their great memory is what has led to the house looking exactly how it did when they lived there. Some of the original pieces were found and are in the house, which gives it even more resonance and beauty and authenticity. It’s like time travel!”
She says her dad would have been proud of the home.
“If my dad could walk into that house today, I think he would be so overcome with going back into time, and to see his deepest memories preserved forever now. The public will now see how other people lived and what influenced him so profoundly. I just never expected anything like this, and I have to give it up to Dr. Hawkins and the team for what they have done.”
She says this project was one that she quickly wanted to be part of, because it helped tell the story of where the Cash family came from.
“This whole project has caused an immense shift in my own life. As you can image, I get a lot of requests every week for me to participate in Johnny Cash events. I turn all of those offers down. When Arkansas State University asked the family to participate in this project, I immediately agreed because I was flooded with excitement about it and knowledge that this would be the right thing. I knew this would have meant more to my dad than anything else, and that my children needed to know that, two generations back, we were cotton farmers and this is where we came from.”
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 to get a new start. Those who participated 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 would pay back the government. The Dyess colony was named after W. R. Dyess, who was Arkansas’s director of the Works Progress Administration. Dyess led the project that would lead to the federal government acquiring 16-thousand acres of land. A town center was built, as well as farmsteads for 500 colonist families. Ray and Carrie Cash were among the 500 colonist families recruited from all over Arkansas to the historic Dyess Colony. The Cashes moved to Dyess in March 1935 with their five children, including 13-year old Roy, 11-year old Louise, five-year old Jack, three-year old J. R. and one-year old Reba. Two additional children, Joanne and Tommy, were born in Dyess. The Cash family lived in the home from 1935 to 1954. Rosanne Cash says this project became the inspiration for her album The River & The Thread.
“The first trip came down here to participate in the first Johnny Cash Music Festival, Marshall Grant (Johnny’s original bass player in the band Tennessee Two) came to rehearsal that day and played his big upright bass guitar. That night, he had a brain aneurism. On his last conscious day of his life, he was playing guitar for this project. I am a song writer, and I couldn’t avoid writing a song about that experience. That event, coupled with coming out here to seeing the house for the first time, really moved me. I started thinking about how hard my grandmother’s life was. I thought about her raising seven kids, picking cotton, cooking at the end of the day, starting out with no electricity or plumbing; I started thinking that I couldn’t have done that. She had that steely resolve that we inherited. So, there was a song in that, which would be The Sunken Lands. Those songs opened up a whole album called The River & The Thread."
She tells how the album changed her.
“We took a lot of trips through the Delta when we were writing these songs. It has been a life-changing experience. I have never had song writing experiences like that. The things that I thought were anecdotal in my life; (being born in Memphis, being that my grandparents were cotton farmers) I thought those were just facts strung along in my life. They are the things that have carried with me my entire life. They have formed me as a musician and a wife and mother.”
Rosanne says she can remember when she went to the boyhood home when Johnny was alive.
“I remember when my father brought us back here to the home. I must have been 12 at that time. There were still enormous trees around the house. Dr. Hawkins has replanted those cottonwoods and they will be there once again. The house was boarded up. There was no one living there. I remember my dad walking around the house looking at every window, and there was a sense of loss and heaviness of heart that first time. As a pre-teen child, I was aware of it, but I didn’t understand it. And then to really begin to realize how deep the loss of his brother, Jack, affected him and was in a lot of his work, then there were songs about the soil. It all started to make sense my first visit.”
She says when she went through the home, the part that moved her most was the bedroom that Johnny slept in.
“I just had an experience about an hour ago as I brought three of my five children through the house. We went into my dad’s childhood bedroom. The four of us stood there and wept. It was the oddest sensation of thinking of my dad as a little boy in that very spot and what if he could have seen his middle-age daughter and three of his grandchildren stand in his room. Could he conceive that? It was too much and it was the most over-whelming sense and so beautiful.”
Cash hopes the home and the history of the New Deal will help people have a better understanding about the music of Johnny Cash.
“I think it will inform their understanding of him a lot more, and to see where those songs came from. These are not just imaginary events; these are real songs that came from this spot on earth. Even before the house was restored, there were buses of tourists that would find their way there. It is not like there are a lot of souvenirs everywhere, this is a real thing. It is very powerful because of its authenticity.”
Dr. Ruth Hawkins agrees.
“I hope that when visitors see this, they get a sense of who this man was and how it did impact his music. I really think it is obvious that all of the values that came across in his music, the love of family, the love of community, his concern for fellow man, all of things that come out in his music; I think it is clear they were shaped and formed right here in Dyess, Arkansas, as well as the work ethic.”
Other phases of the project include rebuilding the theatre next to the Administration Building as a visitor/orientation center, re-creating the farmstead buildings at the Cash home, 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. Completion of the master plan is estimated to cost approximately $4.2 million. To date, approximately $3.3 million has been raised. This includes $2.2 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 General Assembly, and $470,750 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.