- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009


The swampland here still tries to reclaim its past, swallowing up concrete foundations reinforced with steel beams and spitting out its buried dead.

The past haunted Dyess Colony’s most-famous resident, Johnny Cash, his entire life - the thought of his older brother’s death after a workshop blade cut through his body. This is where the Big Muddy River came in 5 feet high and rising, where a young Mr. Cash let cotton picked off the vine dissolve in his mouth.

That past remains visible in Dyess, tucked into the corner of northeastern Arkansas among dirt roads carved out of the muddy fields by Depression-era workers. Born of economic disaster, Dyess was where state and federal officials thought poor farmers of the Mississippi Delta could rise up in a socialistic society of government-funded homes and hospitals, so long as the New Deal pioneers filled burlap sacks with cotton.

Mr. Cash left the colony to join the Air Force, but Dyess already had begun to wither away, forgotten in the rush to fund World War II and the start of industrialized farming in the South. But the town’s famous son now figures heavily in an effort to revitalize the community as a living relic of how the nation responded to an economic meltdown.

To do it, Dyess could use a new government bailout of its own.

“It’s going to take some time and money,” Mayor Larry Sims said, “and we’re scraping all we can get to get by.”

Dyess, pronounced like stretching the word “dice” into two syllables, developed as bread lines stretched for blocks in metropolitan cities during the Great Depression. In rural Arkansas, the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927 and a drought that followed decimated farming in the Delta.

The economic turmoil had many looking to return to working the soil, where at least they could eke out food for their families.

W.R. Dyess, a rich Mississippi County planter who became the head of the state’s relief effort, picked the swamp land covered by thick “gumbo” soil to build the colony. His choice may not have been entirely altruistic - the government purchased largely unusable land from the son of Dyess’ friend at a good profit and the workers would improve roads on land Dyess already owned.

By 1934, workers had begun clearing the land, building shotgun-style homes on 20- and 40-acre tracts of land, complete with smokehouses, barns and other improvements. Government workers began bringing in families who could prove they could bring in a harvest off the land to pay off the loans. Applications asked for whites of “good moral standing.”

Within a year, electrical lines powered the downtown square of the colony, home to a two-story white administration building. The town grew to have a hospital, a weekly newspaper and schools. The colony would be heralded by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a visit.

“I don’t suppose you realize the interest with which we in Washington have been watching your experiment here. We believe that the unfortunate people of this country would rather work out their own salvation than accept charity,” she told a crowd from the administration building’s front steps. “Your success will help not you alone but also will enable others to follow in your footsteps.”

But the work was backbreaking, said A.J. Henson, who moved to Dyess with his family in 1936. The lands surrounding the homes had to be cleared by the owners and tilled into acceptable farm fields before cotton could be planted. Neighbors shared each others’ mules and hoed rows by hand.

Still, the promise of newly built homes and fertile farmland drew many to the project from shack homes where only blankets blocked mosquitoes from coming through windows with no panes.

“Moving to a place where all of the buildings were painted and none of them were run-down … that was the end of a dream for us,” Mr. Henson said.

That promise of a new life drew the family of Ray and Carrie Cash, parents to J.R. Cash and his six siblings. They worked their land at home No. 266 off Road 3. There, Johnny Cash tried to draw his older brother Jack into fishing on a Saturday in 1944, rather than cutting oak trees into fence posts at the high school’s shop.

Jack refused. Hours later, Mr. Cash’s father picked up J.R. in the preacher’s Model A. The saw at the shop had passed through Jack’s groin and into his stomach. The boy lasted six days and in his last moments asked his mother whether she could hear the angels approaching.

“Then he went into a rigor,” Johnny Cash recalled in his 1997 autobiography.

In time, Mr. Cash graduated from Dyess High School, part of a class of 19 students in 1950, before heading off to the Air Force.

By that time, the dream of Dyess Colony had faded. Farmers left their lands, either for poor performance or the lure of city jobs in the World War II economic boom. Some stayed, but without the Depression to sustain interest in the socialistic experiment, the town would never be the same.

Inside the old administration building, the wood-planked floor now creaks and bends, rotted away at points from a leaking roof. It is here, among the old clothes, trash and debris, that Mr. Sims, the mayor, thinks the town can rise again.

City offices could combine with a museum showcasing Dyess’ history. Rooms off to the side could hold Cash memorabilia, as well as that of country singer Gene Williams, another Dyess native.

Such a museum could be a boon for Dyess, whose economic engine now consists of three municipal employees and one convenience store. “There’s nothing here. There’s no industry, there’s no factories,” Mr. Sims said.

The state highway through town has been renamed Johnny Cash Highway, which helps. But the brunt of redevelopment work will carry a greater cost. The town raised $40,000 to purchase the old administration building. It cost another $64,000 to fix the roof alone.

To revamp the interior and create a museum could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, money the town simply can’t raise on its own through cookouts and concerts. Congressional leaders suggested Mr. Sims look at money from the federal stimulus package, but that likely won’t happen.

“There has to be something more than the Johnny Cash water slide,” said state Sen. Steve Bryles. “There has to be greater value.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide