contentsBlytheville AR Chamberads

The History of Dyess

Dyess’s hardscrabble roots are the stuff hit songs are made of. A number of gritty lyrics were penned about this modest town, leaving a lasting, indelible impression on America as a whole – largely thanks to its native son and musician Johnny Cash.

Founded in 1934 as a federal government experiment of sorts, the town was established as a way for farmers across the state to recover from the painful blows dealt by the Great Depression. The Dyess Colony was assembled as an agricultural resettlement community developed under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal through President Franklin Roosevelt. It was named after Arkansas’s first WPA administrator, William Reynolds Dyess.

The colony was shaped like a radial spoke, with a community center in the middle from which farmsteads jutted out. The first 13 families settled here in fall 1934. The project eventually swelled to include 500 family parcels. It’s believed to be the largest such community-building experiment established by the federal government during that time.

The initiative meant farmers each were given a new piece of land – swampland, that is. The parcels needed major work in order to be crop-ready. Struggles here were well-documented by Cash, whose family grew cotton in Dyess. The Cash home is one of the few houses remaining in the former colony.

But make no mistake, current residents take pride in remnants left from their town’s meager beginnings. It’s something they strive to preserve while also keeping an eye toward the future in this town of roughly 400.

“The Dyess Colony is truly symbolic of the American Dream — affirming the idea that a boy from desperately poor circumstances could rise to become an international music icon,” said Dr. Ruth Hawkins, executive director of Arkansas State University Heritage Sites, which oversees the Dyess Colony, among others.

But it is so much more than just the boyhood home of the Man in Black.

“As one of the nation’s largest agricultural resettlement colonies during the New Deal, its surviving buildings stand today as a tribute and a reminder of the hard work, perseverance, and cooperative spirit that provided a new start in life for hundreds of Arkansas farm families and contributed to the development of Mississippi County and Northeast Arkansas,” Hawkins said.

Today, the city is in the middle of a long-term growth project called The Dyess Colony Redevelopment Master Plan, which was set into motion in 2010. The overarching goal is to develop the area as a heritage tourism site, with a two-pronged focus on agricultural heritage and the Cash family.

Part of that plan allowed for the city to donate its former administration building and adjacent theater center shell to Arkansas State University, which turned it into a center for exhibits related to the Dyess Colony, the Cash family and the impact of Dyess on Cash and his music.

Several agencies are pitching in to make these changes come to fruition, but Arkansas State University has taken the lead in preserving the remaining historic buildings. Other phases of the project include recreating farm buildings at the Cash home; recreating one of the adjacent colony houses to provide visitor services; and installing signage at locations of previously existing colony structures, such as the hospital, gin, cannery and school.

Other redevelopment master plan highlights aim to:

• Preserve the remaining Dyess Colony historic buildings, particularly within the Colony Circle and the Johnny Cash Boyhood HomeDevelop a tourism experience that encompasses the entire community.

• Develop community infrastructure for the mutual benefit of residents and tourists alike, including improving roads and public utilities.

• Encourage entrepreneurial and small business development to provide visitor amenities and services.

• Develop and enforce city ordinances to enhance community aesthetics, ensure public safety, and ensure planned growth.

• Provide incentives for general cleanup and compatible renovations to existing structures.

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