My husband and I recently visited the up and coming small town of Wilson, Arkansas which is near the historic colony of Dyess, Arkansas. Dyess is where Johnny Cash spent his formative years. I have always been a fan of Johnny Cash and even more so after reading a devotional book about his life and music called Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. We knew that while we were in the area we had to go to Dyess to see the boyhood home of Johnny Cash.
This area of Arkansas has a unique, unassuming, and unexpected beauty.
On the short drive from Wilson to Dyess we were surrounded by Delta farmland. The bright blue skies were speckled with puffy clouds. Various shades of green flew by outside the car window occasionally alternating with the dark, rich brown of newly turned land. A bright yellow crop duster flew low across the fields, rising just in time to barely miss a line of trees. I felt that I had never really appreciated the loveliness of this part of the state.
The History of Dyess, Arkansas – The Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash
The tiny town of Dyess has a fascinating history. It was created by the New Deal in 1934 to give impoverished farmers a chance to work and own their land. Under the Works Progress Administration or WPA a federal agricultural resettlement community originally called “Colonization Project No. 1” was created in this area of the Mississippi River Delta. Colonization Project No. 1 or the Dyess colony was laid out with a town center surrounded by farmsteads.
Dyess was one of the most famous of the “resettlement colonies” for impoverished farmers during the Great Depression. It received national attention when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the community in 1936.
Five hundred houses were built at the colony each with its own twenty- to forty-acre farm. Although these were very simple homes our tour guide said that they were almost always immeasurably better than where these impoverished farmers had previously been living. In fact Johnny’s biography says that his momma cried when she walked into the house because it was the nicest place she had ever lived.
All of the Dyess houses had a well for water and were wired for electricity. There was an electric light in the living room and in one of the bedrooms. However there was only one switch for both. Our tour guide said that Johnny’s father was in charge of determining if the lights were on or off.
Interestingly, the homes also had a bathroom with a tub and toilet even though there was no water to the house. The WPA had expected city water to be brought to the the colony, however, this didn’t happen until the late 60’s.
Each farm also had some out-buildings including a barn and chicken house. The barn was no longer on the Cash property but the chicken house, an outhouse, and a smoke house were still standing.
Farming families could apply to be allowed to move into to one of the homes and farm the surrounding land. When they began to make a profit they could purchase the homestead. We were told on our tour that only the area for the house and out-buildings was cleared when the families arrived. The new farmers were responsible for preparing all the fields themselves.
On their applications to be part of the colony were questions that would never be allowed today. Among other things they were asked about alcohol use, if the head of the household was a good provider, and if there was any “deviant” behavior in the family.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the town’s original homes are gone now. According to our guide there are only about 29 left standing and most of those are in poor condition and will be probably not be around in the next few years.
A few of the scenes from the film Walk The Line which is about the romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter were filmed in and around Dyess.
The Restoration of the Cash Home
The Cash family moved to Dyess in 1935 with their five children. They lived in farm number 266 of the 500. Little Johnny, or J.R. as he was called then, was only 3 years old. Johnny Cash lived in Dyess until he graduated from high school in 1950. He was heavily influenced by his experiences in the area. His song “Five Feet High and Rising” is about one of the major floods that affected the colony. He also wrote “Pickin’ Time” about his farming life in Dyess.
In 2011 Arkansas State University purchased the Cash home as part of its Heritage Sites program. At the time of purchase the home was a run-down shack which had been through many changes and iterations. With the help of Johnny’s younger siblings, Tommy and Joanne, serving as consultants, Arkansas State stabilized the 900 square foot house and returned it to its original condition. The university was given access to old family photos that they studied scrupulously in order to recreate the home to be as close as possible to the way it was when the Cash family lived there.
Some of the restoration included stripping off multiple layers of paint to bring the home back to the original wood walls which were in place during the years the Cash family lived in the home.
They even discovered the original floral linoleum in near pristine condition. According to our guide it was protected because the home was drafty in the winter due to being built up from the ground on concrete posts. Instead of removing the old flooring the long line of inhabitants would simply add new flooring over old in order to help with insulation.
The Cash family donated many original items for Arkansas State to use in the restoration which gives it an amazing feeling of authenticity. The piano belonging to Johnny’s mother was housed at a nearby Baptist church and apparently the church called one day and asked if the restorers would like to have it back. They eagerly accepted.
Your Tour of the Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash
You will start your tour of the Johnny Cash boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas in the old movie theater located on what was once the town square – or in this case the town circle. The front facade of the old movie theater is original but the back of the building was falling down and has had to be replaced. It is in the theater that you will find the visitors center. It is here at the theater that you will check in and purchase your tickets.
We were greeted by knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful docents who explained the history of the town and the Cash family. They told us that in addition to being a movie theater this building also had a soda fountain where the teens could mix and mingle and dance.
Before you leave for your tour you will watch a short video about the restoration of the Johnny Cash boyhood home by Arkansas State University. The film includes some moving scenes of the Cash siblings and relatives seeing the home for the first time after it had been restored. The Cash home is a short drive away down a gravel road in the middle of farmland. You will be led there by a guide who will give you a brief explanation of the house and answer any questions that you might have about the home, Johnny Cash, or the Cash family.
Either before or after your tour you can also go to the stately old government building of Dyess which was once called the Colony Administration Building. This was where original colonists would come to get their paychecks, pay their bills, and mail letters. This building houses exhibits about the colony of Dyess as well as about the Cash family and Johnny’s boyhood in the area. They even have Johnny’s senior picture from the Dyess high school.
A fun side note: We met an older couple in the museum who told us that Dyess was known for having one of the best girls basketball teams in the state back around the time Johnny Cash would have graduated. The woman told us that she played basketball for a school in a nearby town and they were always afraid to play the Dyess girls.
Johnny Cash Heritage Music Festival
This is a 3 day festival to honor Johnny Cash and remember the heritage of the town of Dyess, Arkansas. It is held in various locations around the town and concludes with a world class music festival in the fields at the Cash family home. Although rice and soy have taken over cotton as the crops of choice in this area our tour guide told us that they actually grow cotton around the music festival location to give it more of an authentic feeling and because so many people have never seen cotton growing!
There will not be a festival in fall of 2020. Check back in 2021!
Plan Your Tour of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home
The museum does take walk-ins but If you have a general idea when you will arrive I do suggest that you make a reservation. The address and phone number are:
Historic Dyess Colony:
Johnny Cash Boyhood Home
110 Center Drive
Dyess, Arkansas 72330
We really enjoyed our visit to the Johnny Cash Boyhood home. I hope that you do as well!
Thanks for stopping by!