DYESS, Ark. - Ruth Hawkins gestured to a white Chevy conversion van grinding to a stop on the gravel road outside the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. Its plates were from New Mexico. “This goes on all day long,” she said. “People stop and have their pictures made by the fence.”
Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University, stood aside quietly as Kevin Shrock of Alamogordo, New Mexico, emerged from the van to take photos of the modest white home, which was receiving the final touches after a wholesale renovation.
For decades now, fans like Shrock have made pilgrimages to this collapsing town of 410 people in the Arkansas Delta, where jobs are scarce and buildings sink into the clay-filled gumbo soil. They come to visit the place that inspired such songs as “Pickin’ Time” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” Often, visitors would get an eyeful - and occasionally steal a handful - of the deteriorating clapboard house and then leave.
Few learned anything about the history of Dyess as an experimental colony built by the Works Progress Administration for farmers during the Great Depression. Or the fact that the Cash family is part of that history. More distressing to those in Dyess, the visitors left with all their money in their pockets.
That is because Dyess’ economy, like its buildings, has been sinking for decades. It has no motel. The diner is closed. The theater was one of the buildings that collapsed into the restive soil. The half-empty general store, Bailey’s, sells one memento, hats that read “Lifetime Fan of Johnny Cash.”
Now, more than a decade after Cash’s death in 2003, the old house is being restored and its past brought back to life, a tribute to the singer’s lasting influence. What that will mean for the town itself is much less clear.
On Saturday, Dyess will unveil the refurbished Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and the slick new Dyess Colony Museum, which is housed in the original New Deal administration building, also renovated. The combined tour of the two sites will cost a visitor $10. Half the proceeds will go to Arkansas State University, which owns and manages the facilities; the other half will go to Dyess.
The grand opening will include appearances by Cash’s daughter, Rosanne, and his two surviving siblings, Tommy and Joanne Cash. On the eve of the opening, in nearby Jonesboro, the country stars Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire will headline the Johnny Cash Music Festival.
It is all a bit much for Dyess, which Mayor Larry Sims described as a “nice, quiet town,” while gazing out at the forlorn main drag. “But,” he added, “that’ll change when this thing opens up.”
For years, the town tried and failed to develop tourism. In 2009, Arkansas State got involved with the purchase of both structures.
Sites that Hawkins considers comparable, such as the Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and B.B. King’s boyhood home in Indianola, Mississippi, attract at least 40,000 visitors a year. Like those places, Dyess is near Memphis, Tennessee, which is an hour south.
“If we can get 20,000 people here, we’ll do real well,” Sims said, noting that the admission fees alone would double the city’s annual budget of $100,000.
With Johnny Cash as the bait, visitors will begin the tour at the new museum, where they will get a history lesson of the 1934 colony, including a digital database of Dyess’ first families.
Cash’s family was one of the original 500 to carve a living from the land, 16,000 acres obtained at low cost by the government because they were swampy and wild with trees and vines. The ground swelled when wet, then dried into cracks so wide and deep that mules would break their legs. Farmers cleared their own land, either 20- or 40-acre plots, which they had to begin paying for within a few seasons of their first planting.
Cash was 3 when his family moved from Kingsland, Arkansas, to Dyess, the biggest of about 100 such colonies across the United States. Dyess peaked at about 3,000 residents in the late 1930s and included a hospital, a barber, beauty shops and a toy factory.
When the Cashes saw their new home, they were so overcome that “the whole family sat down on the floor and cried,” Hawkins said.
Still, the structure was small and basic. There were two bedrooms for the family, which would grow to include seven children. Winter cold rushed up from the floorboards. There was no running water. Electricity came years later.
Dyess was eventually incorporated, but the difficulty of farm life and the promise of higher wages elsewhere prompted many families to leave.
The main event for tourists is likely to be the Cash home, painstakingly returned to its original look, down to the same type of battery-operated Silvertone radio that young Johnny pushed his ear against. Every item in the home was approved by Tommy and Joanne Cash.
“We’ve got everything just as it was,” Joanne Cash, 76, said in a telephone interview from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. “It took a lot of hard work. It’s been very emotional for me.”
The most meaningful piece for her, she said, is the only one original to the Cash family, the piano. “We used to gather around that piano at night and sing gospel for an hour,” she said. “That was our entertainment.”
While ticket sales would be a boon for Dyess, the real gain would come from tourists’ spending money at independent businesses - if there were some. “We want them to spend money here, or we haven’t really accomplished something for the city,” Sims said.
There has been talk of a restaurant; a bed-and-breakfast in an original colony house; and more tourist attractions, such as a reopened cannery. A gift shop is planned as part of a rebuilt theater, but that will not open until 2016 and will be owned by the university.
No one has taken the plunge. And plenty of locals do not share the mayor’s enthusiasm. “I don’t think it’s going to do much for us,” said Kandice Bailey, co-owner of the general store. “They kept telling us to support it because it’s going to bring in money.” But Bailey is skeptical that visitors on a tour would take time to walk around town.
Sims ran up against those doubts when he proposed a 1 percent sales tax increase to clean abandoned properties in anticipation of more tourists. The measure failed twice.
Nevertheless, the mayor is pushing forward. He found money, volunteers and donations to remake the gymnasium of the school, long closed, into a community center with a stage and used sound system. Mismatched plastic school chairs provide the seating. For an additional $15, tourists can take in a local band and eat local fare, which, by necessity, comes from the houses of locals.
Sims ordered Cash T-shirts, hats, postcards and shot glasses - piled on dinged-up tables scattered across the floor - to sell to tourists.
Already, a few busloads have rolled in. One with visitors from Norway was particularly quiet. But by the end of the night, the Norwegian fans were line dancing in front of the stage. A busload of visitors from Ireland is scheduled to come in September.
Looking out at the community center, Sims said: “It’d be nice to have padded chairs and nice tables. But right now, everyone seems happy with what we’ve got.”