Local Initiatives

Ark. Co-ops Help Restore Johnny Cash Home

By Cathy Cash | ECT Staff Writer Published: June 24th, 2014

Johnny Cash, wearing his trademark black suit, his pompadour blowing in a breeze, walks up to a little dilapidated house in an open field and peers in the window.

Johnny Cash’s boyhood home was a dilapidated remnant of the New Deal before Arkansas co-ops joined with Arkansas State University to save the farmstead. (Photo By: Kirkley Thomas)

Johnny Cash’s boyhood home was a dilapidated remnant of the New Deal before Arkansas co-ops joined with Arkansas State University to save the farmstead. (Photo By: Kirkley Thomas)

Opening the screen door, he enters the house he left in Dyess, Ark., nearly 20 years before as a high school graduate off to join the service. His heels echo through the five vacant rooms.

“Here’s something that just broke me up,” he says pointing to where he remembers his mama’s stove bore holes in the floor.

“We moved in this house in the winter of 1935. There were five cans of paint sitting there on the floor. That’s all that was here, remember? And every one of us sat down in the middle of the floor and cried.”

Then he recalls the spot near a window where he sat, ear glued to the radio listening to Hank Snow and Gene Autry.

“Well, I tell you, at that time, it was a fine house,” says June Carter Cash, seeing her husband’s boyhood home for the first time.

This scene from the late 1960s—a pivotal time in Cash’s legendary career—was caught on film by a crew shooting a documentary on the singer.  Many of Cash’s songs reflect his time growing up in Dyess, such as “Five Feet High and Rising,” about the flood of 1937, and “Pickin’ Time” about hard times until the cotton came in.

Beginning August 16, the public will have a chance to walk the same floors when the door of the small farm house opens as a heritage site under the auspices of Arkansas State University.

That is thanks largely to the rural electric cooperatives in the state that saw a need to save the historic home and stepped in.

A NEW DEAL IN THE SWAMP

It was a brand new house when the Cash family moved in—Ray and Carrie Cash with their five children, including 3-year-old Johnny. The family was one of 500 recruited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program aimed at reestablishing farmers who had been flattened by flood, drought and the Depression in Arkansas.

Johnny Cash. (Photo By: Michael Ainsworth/Newscom)

Johnny Cash. (Photo By: Michael Ainsworth/Newscom)

Each family got a house with three, four or five rooms; a chicken coop; a smokehouse; an outhouse and 20 acres. The families were expected to clear the swampy, snake-infested bottomland and earn their living farming so they could begin repaying the government three years in.

The Cash family sold the property in 1953, after Johnny graduated from high school, joined the service and then settled in Memphis, Tenn., about an hour away, where his music career took off.

Today Johnny Cash’s boyhood home represents one of the earliest and largest agricultural resettlement colonies in the country.

While many clapboard houses in Dyess Colony have since been toppled to create larger farms or renovated beyond recognition, the one associated with the Man in Black stayed intact despite falling into severe disrepair.

“This would be an important house and important site even without its connection to Johnny Cash,” said Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University.

Hawkins was always aware of the home on a gravel road in the rural northeast corner of the state.

“The frustrating thing about it was people were driving by all the time, wanting to see where Johnny Cash grew up and they went away thinking this is really the condition he lived in,” Hawkins said in an interview. “That was not the way it was.”

She wanted to restore the house to its original state. But where would the seed money come from and continued support necessary for upkeep?

Then the co-ops “got the ball rolling.”

A SITE WORTH SEEING

“It wasn’t until Kirkley Thomas came to see me. That spurred the whole project,” Hawkins said.

Kirkley Thomas of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas and Rosanne Cash. (Photo By: Kirkley Thomas)

Kirkley Thomas of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas and Rosanne Cash. (Photo By: Kirkley Thomas)

Thomas, vice president-governmental affairs at the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, grew up near the Dyess colony and knew about the Cash house all his life.

“The house was literally falling apart. There was nothing there for tourists to stop and spend dollars on in that little community. And people were coming from all over the world,” to see it after the 2005 movie based on the singer’s life, Thomas told ECT.coop. “That got us more energized to do something.”

Thomas and his predecessor, Carmie Henry, worked with the late Arkansas State Sen. Steve Bryles of Mississippi County, where the Cash home stands, to pass legislation in 2009 for a $50,000 feasibility study to get the project into motion.

A Johnny Cash Music Festival sponsored by the co-ops and others provided much of the funds for Arkansas State to buy the house in 2011. The annual concert provided funding for the restoration—which included rebuilding the foundation—completed this year and will continue to support its upkeep. A portion of the proceeds also funds a scholarship for a needy student from northeast Arkansas to attend ASU.

Family members, including Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash, who hosted the first music festival fundraiser, attended a special opening of the house in April. She has talked about her experience in visiting her father’s childhood home and drawing inspiration from the area for her most recent album.

“It was very moving and emotional for the family, for his sister Joanne and brother Tommy, for Rosanne and her sisters and [his son] John Carter Cash,” said Thomas. “It was very emotional.”

The next Johnny Cash Music Festival is slated for Aug. 15 at ASU and will be hosted by the singer’s remaining siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, who proved invaluable when it came to decorating the house as it was when they lived there.

“They have phenomenal memories of what the house was like,” said Hawkins. “They even remember the pattern on the bedspread.”

A registry for donations circa 1935 provided about 80 percent of the furnishings, many essentially identical to what the family had, Hawkins said. Thomas donated a 1935 chifferobe.

Amazingly, the Cash family’s original piano was returned to the house. When the family moved into the city of Dyess, they gave the piano to their church. It later wound up in the community center, which was in the former high school’s gym.

“Joanne Cash was talking about ‘mama’s piano’ when the mayor said, ‘We have the original piano,’” said Hawkins.

A TOWN’S LAST HOPE

Larry Sims, mayor of Dyess for 12 years, has seen the population of the tiny town seven miles from an interstate dwindle from 515 to 410. Turning the Cash house into a heritage site is “the only hope we got to survive,” he said.

The boyhood home of Johnny Cash as restored to its 1935 state will open to the public in August thanks to support from Arkansas electric co-ops. (Photo By: Arkansas Living)

The boyhood home of Johnny Cash as restored to its 1935 state will open to the public in August thanks to support from Arkansas electric co-ops. (Photo By: Arkansas Living)

“We‘ve got no industry, no factories, no jobs—nothing here in town,” said Sims. “Once it opens, it’s going to create a lot of new revenue for people to do a lot of different things.”

When the boyhood home of Johnny Cash opens, the impact is expected to be profound in Dyess and beyond the one-stoplight hamlet.

“We are projecting about 50,000 visitors a year” and $10 million a year in tourism-related income for northeast Arkansas region, said Hawkins.

“The co-ops from the very beginning organized series of meetings in Little Rock on how this project might work, on how might they raise funds for it,” said Hawkins. “They really got the ball rolling and they haven’t dropped it yet.”

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