But for one of its residents who became world famous, the Dyess Colony in Arkansas might have been relegated to the dust heap of history along with other Depression era government-planned resettlement communities.
The colony, now the town of Dyess, Ark., was founded in 1934 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s agricultural relief and rehabilitation program for impoverished farmers. One year into the Great Depression, two-thirds of Arkansas’s independent farmers had lost their farms, making the state one of the hardest hit by the devastating economic downturn, which was preceded in the state by the Flood of 1927 and then a drought.
Using the state’s relief rolls, the federal government hired 1,300 men to construct the settlement, the largest of its kind in the nation.
According to www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net, “The colony was laid out in a wagon wheel design with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out from the middle. The roads leading out were simply numbered rather than named, as in ‘Road 14.’ The men dug ditches to drain the land and built 500 small farmhouses. Each house had five rooms with an adjacent barn, privy and chicken coop. The houses were whitewashed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and dining room, plus a front and back porch. Apart from these improvements to the land, the colonists were expected to do the rest themselves.”
“The rest” included the backbreaking work of cutting trees, blasting stumps and clearing swampland to make way for crops and livestock pastures.
Thousands of economically bludgeoned farm families filled out the six-page application form seeking residence, which included a subsistence advance from the government to purchase 20 to 40 acres of land, one of the homes, a mule and a cow, groceries and supplies. The farmers were expected to repay the advance when they harvested their first
The families also received a share of profits from local businesses, such as the general store and cannery. The farms were worked individually, but the rest of the local commerce operated as a cooperative. After three years, the residents received a deed to their house and land.
Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash were selected to participate in the colony. They arrived with their five children — two more were born in the colony — in March 1935. The middle child, J. R., was 3 years old at the time.
J.R. lived in the colony until he graduated as class vice president from Dyess High School in 1950 and later became iconic music legend Johnny Cash.
His boyhood home remains the signal attraction of Dyess, which incorporated as a municipality in 1964. Population of the colony peaked at 2,500 residents in 1936, half of whom left for other work during World War II.
The current population stands at 368. Nevertheless, about 10,000 tourists a year visit Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, which was purchased by Arkansas State University in 2011 and restored based on old photographs and reminiscences of the Cash siblings. The Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash opened to the public Aug. 16, 2014, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
“Most visitors come to see the restored boyhood home of Johnny Cash, and they leave having also experienced the New Deal agricultural colony that helped shape his music,” said Adam Long, Ph.D., director of the university’s Heritage Sites program, which also maintains and oversees Ernest Hemingway’s barn studio, an antebellum plantation, a Japanese American relocation center and other historical attractions.
“In addition to the Cash home, the federal administration building has been restored for exhibit space and the old colony theater has been transformed into a visitor center,”
“The Dyess Colony is a unique opportunity to see how the history of a region helped to shape a legendary country musician,” said Long, who suggested tourists can best prepare for their visit by “taking time to listen to some of the Cash songs inspired by life in the Dyess Colony, such as ‘Five Feet High and Risin’’ or ‘Pickin’ Time.’”
At the time this article went to press, the attraction was closed “due to the public health emergency,” said Long. “We haven’t set a reopening date yet. We are following the advice of the local and state health authorities and will reopen when it’s safe to do so.”
When opened the site will resume its regular schedule, with tours beginning at 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday. The day’s last tour will depart at 3 p.m.
Entrance fees, which include admission to all buildings on the site, is $10 general admission; $8 per person for seniors and groups of 10 or more; $5 for students, field trip groups and children from 5 to 18 years of age; and free for children under 5, Arkansas State students and current Dyess residents. For more information, visit