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Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

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Text size: small | medium | largeJON GAMBRELL THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: May 30, 2009DYESS, Ark.

-- The swamp land 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 came in 5 feet high and rising, where a young Cash let cotton picked off the vine dissolve in his mouth.That past remains visible in Dyess, tucked into the corner of northeast 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 believed 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.Cash left the colony to join the Air Force, but Dyess already had begun 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," Dyess 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 began clearing the land, building shotgun-style homes on 20and 40-acre tracts of land, complete with smokehouses, barns and other improvements.

Government workers began choosing 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."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."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, 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 he asked his mother if she could hear the angels approaching."Then he went into a rigor," Johnny Cash recalled in his 1997 autobiography.A part of Cash died then, too."After his brother died, he used to talk to about him a lot," said A.J.

Henson, who moved to Dyess with his family in 1936.

"He was assuring everyone that Jack went to heaven."In time, 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 Mayor Sims thinks the town can rise again.Here, 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," 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."There has to be something more than the Johnny Cash water slide," said state Sen.

Steve Bryles.

"There has to be greater value."Bryles shepherded a $50,000 grant in the state's budget for Arkansas State University to develop a plan for Johnny Cash heritage site in Dyess.

Ruth Hawkins, who heads the university's Delta Heritage initiative, said that plan would have to incorporate the town's unique history."A lot of people have gone there because of Johnny Cash, but when they got there they were fascinated by the story of the Dyess Colony," Hawkins said.

"It has to be a much broader effort than just Johnny Cash."Still, Cash remains the draw of the town for tour bus groups and those taking taxi cabs from the airport in Memphis, Tenn.

His family's old home still stands off of County Road 924.

There, a sign out front asks passers-by to pay $5 for the privilege of taking a photograph of the home, which has seen better days.

T-shirts are $15.Owner Willie Stegall, 74, said people from across the world stop by.

Most stay outside, though occasionally he will let people inside for a brush with the boy who became the Man in Black: to see the initials "J.R." carved into a wall near a wood stove.Post a Comment(Requires free registration)Please avoid offensive, vulgar, or hateful language.Respect others.Use the "Report Inappropriate Comment" link when necessary.See the Terms and Conditions for details.Click here to post a comment.Tags relating to this article: - 0 articlesCan't find what you're looking for? Try our quick search:
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