Dyess Colony opened for VIP Inspection Tour event

Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Pictured are Joanne Cash Yates, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Dr. Ruth Hawkins and Tommy Cash.

It was a homecoming for many as friends, family and supporters gathered in Dyess for a tour referred to as a step back in time by Joanne Cash Yates, the youngest sister of Johnny Cash.

"It has been said you can't go home, but my brother Tommy and I had the opportunity to go home today," Yates said.

Yates and Tommy Cash, were among the guests at the VIP Inspection Tour of the Historic Dyess Colony on Friday, April 25. Also present for the event were Tara Cash Schwoebel, Johnny Cash's youngest daughter, and several Cash family members. The event was sponsored by Arkansas State University.

The boyhood home of Johnny Cash is being restored and furnished as it was when the Cash family lived at Dyess Colony. It was opened for a preview to the media, sponsors and donors as part of a VIP Inspection tour.

Guests toured the newly restored Dyess Administration Building and the restored Johnny Cash Boyhood Home for a preview of the first phase of the overall project. The Dyess project will have an official grand opening on Aug. 16.

The Dyess Colony was a community established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s as a Depression-era agricultural resettlement colony. It was part of the New Deal program. Farmers were advanced 20 or 40 acres of farmland, a mule, a small home and money to buy food and plant crops. There was an agreement if the farmers were successful, they would pay back the government.

Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family to House #266 at Dyess Colony in 1935 where the family lived until 1954. One of their seven children, Johnny Cash, spent his growing up years at Dyess until he left to serve in the military.

The restoration of the Dyess Administration Building was the beginning of the project.

Yates said she knew her parents would be proud.

"I remember Momma saying one time when they lived in Hendersonville, she didn't think she ever wanted to go back to Dyess because the house don't look like it used to. I think maybe she is looking down from heaven and saying, 'Yeah, it does, too.'"

Tommy Cash said he was a member of the Dyess State Championship Basketball team and proud of it. Like his sister, Tommy said seeing his boyhood home restored was an emotional experience and brought back memories.

Future plans are to rebuilt the Dyess theater for a visitor/orientation center.

"I don't think they need to do anything else to the house," Tommy Cash added. "Life was so simple back then."

All of the furnishings in the Cash home are replicas or actual items belonging to the Cash family during their years at Dyess.

Dyess Mayor Larry Simms welcomed everyone.

Friends enjoyed the the VIP Inspection Tour at Dyess. Pictured are Manila Mayor Wayne Wagner (right) and wife, Charolette and son, Rep. Wes Wagner, along with lifetime friend of Johnny Cash.

"It is a great day in Dyess," Mayor Sims said. "This project started in 2006 with a dream to restore the administration building. Dyess is the home of Johnny Cash, Gene Williams and Buddy Jewell. Several people here have donated to the project."

Simms said Gene Williams made a significant donation to get the work started on the administration building in 2007.

"We are honored to have several of Gene Williams' family members here," Mayor Sims said. "There is an exhibit upstairs in the administration building with memorabilia in his honor."

Mayor Simms recognized many people who had a part in the project.

Kirkley A. Thomas, vice president, Governmental Affairs with Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, and retired Carmie Henry of Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas were among the guests for the tour. Thomas said they were in Dyess in 2008 talking to Mayor Sims. Seeing the interest they started making contacts in an effort to help with the restoration project.

The items in the boyhood home of Johnny Cash are original or replicas of what was in the home when it was occupied by the Cash family.

In 2009 Arkansas Legislature directed Arkansas State University to explore the feasibility of developing Dyess as a heritage tourism destination in an effort to revitalize the community.

Arkansas State acquired the boyhood home in 2011. The property was appraised at $100,000, largely due to its historical significance.

ASU Chancellor Dr. Tim Hudson recognized individuals and organizations that have a part in the project calling it a partnership.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, head of the University's Heritage Sites program, is guiding the restoration project.

Dr. Hawkins and Yates have stayed in contact throughout the restoration of the Cash home searching and finding matching furnishings, etc. for the home as it was when the Cash family lived there.

"Dr. Hawkins has been wonderful," Yates said. "Every item is where the original was. What you see in the house is what we had."

The piano, which was one of Yates favorite pieces, is the original piano her mother played and taught some of her grandchildren to play.

They thanked each person who made a monetary donation or an item donation to help with the project of the home restoration.

Johnny Cash's daughter, Tara Cash Schwoebel, said it was her second time to visit his dad's childhood home.

"I have only been here one other time, 30 years ago," she said. "We pulled in on his bus and I could tell his heart never really left. He spent a lot of quiet moments walking the grounds. Being the historian my dad was, he would love it."

The Dyess Administration Building houses exhibits on the colony's history, lifestyles of the families, the impact growing up in Dyess had on Johnny Cash and his music, offices, and a large board room. It will be a functional building with city offices where residents will come in and pay their water bills, etc.

Other phases of the project include rebuilding the theater next to the Administration Building as a visitor/orientation center, recreating the farmstead buildings at the Cash home (barn, smokehouse, chicken coop, and outhouse), developing a walking trail connecting the Cash home and the Town Center, building a caretaker home replicating an original colony house, and adding visitor services such as restrooms and parking.

The completion of the master plan is estimated to cost approximately $5.59 million. To date, approximately $2.5 million has been raised. This includes $1.5 million from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities as a challenge grant, $140,000 from the Arkansas legislature, and $360,000 from festival proceeds and private contributions.

The Johnny Cash Boyhood Hometown Project is expected to draw approximately 50,000 visitors annually, resulting in nearly $10 million in tourism-related income to the region.

The Johnny Cash Music Festival is presented annually by Arkansas State University with participation by the Cash family to benefit the home project. The fourth music festival is scheduled for Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the ASU Convocation Center. As in years past, proceeds from this year's event will help fund the restoration project, as well as support an established scholarship fund. This year's line-up includs Reba McEntire, Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn. The concert producer and festival found is Bill Carter. Singer and comedian Mark Lowry will host this year's event.

Tommy Cash expressed the family's gratitude for all of the work that has been done.

"I know my brother, Johnny, would be thrilled with all this that is honoring him and our family," Cash said.

Dr. Hawkins offered the closing remarks for the event.

She recognized the ASU graduate assistants who have worked hard and assisted in running the site. She said it serves as a laboratory for Arkansas State students in the heritage Studies Ph.D. program.

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