The Dyess Colony was established in 1934 as one of the nation’s first agricultural resettlement communities under the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The colony was named for Mississippi County native and Arkansas’s first WPA administrator, Williams Reynolds Dyess.
The federal government acquired 16,000 acres of land in Mississippi County and laid out the colony with a Town Center at the hub and farmsteads for 500 colonists stretching out from the center. The colony’s centerpiece was a large Greek Revival Administration Building, dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1936.
Colonists recruited to take part in this cooperative experiment included the Ray and Carrie Cash family. They moved from Kingsland, Arkansas, in 1935 with their children, including 3-year-old J. R. Cash (later known as Johnny Cash). The country music legend grew up in Dyess, graduating from Dyess High School in 1950. His experiences there influenced much of his music and career.
In 2009, the Arkansas legislature directed Arkansas State University to determine the feasibility of developing the town as a heritage tourism site. To carry out this mandate, a Dyess Colony Redevelopment Master Plan was completed in 2010, and the city donated the Administration Building, along with the adjacent theater/community center shell, to Arkansas State University.
Through Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council grants, the exterior of the Administration Building has been restored, and work is beginning on the interior restoration. Once completed, the building will include museum exhibits related to Johnny Cash and the historic Dyess Colony, along with space for Dyess municipal offices. In addition, the theater will be reconstructed as part of the museum complex, including an orientation center. The Master Plan also calls for placing historic markers at appropriate locations, creating a hiking/biking trail and driving tour, and developing other heritage tourism attractions and services in the community.
The redevelopment plan also includes restoring the Johnny Cash boyhood home to accurately convey his early lifestyle. The house will be furnished as it was during the 1930s and 1940s, based on recollections of family members. The project also will draw from Johnny Cash’s own memories of the house, documented on video during his 1968 return to Dyess.
This history-making event came about through a serendipitous conversation with Arkansas State University alumnus Bill Carter, a television producer in Nashville, during the Homecoming festivities at ASU. When Bill learned that his alma mater was attempting to acquire and restore the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess, he immediately agreed to produce a benefit concert, provided that it met with the approval of the Cash family.
The Cash family not only endorsed Bill’s idea, but Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash offered to help plan the festival and co-host the concert. The artists in the inaugural line-up donated their time, and numerous sponsors contributed to travel expenses and production costs, meaning 100 percent of the ticket sales went to the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Museum and Home, once completed, are expected to generate 27 new jobs in Mississippi County, with a payroll of $450,000, during the first year of operation. After five years of successful operation, the site is expected to serve as a catalyst for as many as 83 new jobs in the county, with a yearly payroll of $1.35 million.
Additionally, tourist dollars will benefit the region significantly. Based on the current average visitor expenditure calculated by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism ($239.49 per visitor), a conservative estimate of 10,000 visitors during the first year will pump $2.4 million into the regional economy. By the fifth year of operation, 30,000 visitors will add $7.19 million in tourism dollars to the region’s economy.