Arkansas State University to Restore Johnny Cash's Boyhood Home

When a young Johnny Cash and his family moved into a five-room house in Dyess, Ark., in 1935, his mother cried on the kitchen floor with joy. The house may have been a mere 1,000 square feet, but it was new, and it was theirs. Today, the structure's peeling wood frame leans heavily to one side, and the historic interiors have been significantly altered. But the house's future suddenly looks promising now that Arkansas State University has taken possession, announcing plans last week to restore the structure as a museum about Cash and the history of Dyess.

Representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Rural Heritage Development Initiative, working with university officials and the town's mayor, helped broker the deal after two years of negotiations with the owner, who initially refused to sell. The purchase price was $100,000. "The family recognized that the house might not make it through another season and the scope of work was beyond their abilities and resources," says Beth Wiedower, director of the National Trust's Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

Dyess officials hope to incorporate the property's restoration into the town's master development plan, which includes the ongoing restoration of other Works Progress Administration-era structures, including the administration building. Dyess (pop. 410) was founded in 1934 as a planned community as part of the New Deal. Five hundred homes were built from lumber milled on site. Today, only about 25 or 30 still stand, and some have been dramatically altered from their original form.

To help support and guide the restoration of the Cash house, officials from Arkansas State and the National Trust's Rural Heritage program contacted the Cash family. Johnny's daughter Roseanne, his son John Carter, and siblings Tommy and Joanne, who lived in the house while growing up, visited this month and held a press conference to announce a fundraising concert that they'll host on Arkansas State's campus August 4th. Says Wiedower: "It was really touching and surprising because when Roseanne got in the car she said, 'Tell me about the project. This isn't about my dad . . . but this is really about saving this town and creating opportunities for people."

Proceeds from the concert, which will feature Roseanne, John Carter, and other musicians, including Kris Kristofferson and George Jones, will help fund the restoration. Additional revenues will be used for other revitalization projects in Dyess. The National Trust's Southwest Office has provided emergency funds to stabilize the Cash house until the restoration begins in the fall. Ruth Hawkins, who runs the Heritage Sites program at Arkansas State University, says the project will roughly cost $160,000 and take about a year.

"The town of Dyess had such a great impact on Johnny Cash and his music," says Hawkins. "Many of his songs like Five Feet High and Rising, Picking Time, and even the ones that don't speak directly to the town, so much of it came from his growing up in Dyess—and that's a legacy and a heritage that needs to be preserved for future generations."

Dyess Mayor Larry Sims says he hopes the project and the implementation of the rest of the town's master plan will help revive the struggling community. "It's really the only lifeline we've got, because we don't have any schools, don't have any businesses, factories, jobs, or anything," Sims says. "This is not going to happen overnight, it's a long drawn out plan but it's the only hope we've got."

Wiedower says that as many as 6,000 tourists come to Dyess each year to see where Johnny Cash grew up. She estimates the restored house museum could bring up to 20,000 in its first year. "[Cash] called it the Promised Land," she says of Dyess. "So our goal is to get it back there."

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