The Cash Crop for Cash 11/24 06:19
Johnny Cash's Fame Spurs Ag Education and Pride in Dyess, Arkansas
Tens of thousands of Johnny Cash fans flock to Dyess, Arkansas, every year
to visit his boyhood home and learn about his childhood that revolved around
farming. They also learn about the area's agricultural history and modern farm
Progressive Farmer Crops Editor
DYESS, Ark. (DTN) -- Through a thick cloud of dust, Mark Fincher could see
the faint outline of a small, but significant white farmhouse as he harvested
soybeans in mid-October near Dyess, Arkansas. It's a home that Fincher has seen
a thousand times in his 56 years, but it still stirs up thoughts about its
significance to country music, agriculture and the local community.
Johnny Cash grew up in the modest five-room house with no running water. He
and his family spent countless hours working in surrounding fields. Cotton was
the primary "cash crop," which was picked by hand.
If Johnny was alive, Fincher believes the Man in Black would be green with
envy of his John Deere combine and other modern implements compared to
mule-drawn equipment his family used. A cotton picker today can harvest more
than 40 acres -- the size of the Cash farm when it was sold -- in four hours.
It would take the Cashes a couple of months to harvest their cotton.
"When I'm out cutting soybeans or rice, I think if Johnny could just see
this now, he would be astounded," said Fincher, whose family was friends with
the Cashes. "When I started cutting beans, I didn't have air conditioning in
"What the farmers in the 1940s did in the mule days, it was unreal," he
added, referring to the working conditions and labor involved with farming.
"Agriculture has come a long way."
Thanks to Johnny Cash's stardom, Arkansas State University (ASU) and local
residents are able to educate people about agricultural history in the Arkansas
Delta and how food and fiber are grown today. All that occurs while keeping the
singer's legacy alive.
About 40,000 Cash fans make the pilgrimage annually to his boyhood home,
part of the Historic Dyess Colony heritage site maintained by ASU. The
university acquired the home in 2011 and restored it through proceeds from an
annual Johnny Cash Music Festival.
The home, about two miles from Dyess, is open for tours. People can see the
upright piano that Johnny's mother played, which the family gathered around for
sing-a-longs. The community's former theater, where Cash watched Tex Ritter
movies, is now a visitors center. The town's administration building serves as
a museum filled with Cash memorabilia and history about the colony.
"People from all around the world and all walks of life come here," said
Larry Sims, who recently retired as the historic site's facilities manager and
tour guide. "Most visitors arrive having never heard of the agricultural colony
or the concept behind it. Many people end up to be as interested in it than
Johnny and the Cash family. People also learn how Johnny grew up like any other
kid without a silver spoon in his mouth."
Sims often explains to tourists how production agriculture has evolved since
the mid-1930s, when the Cash family started their nearly 20-year farming run in
Dyess Colony was established in 1934 as a federal agricultural resettlement
community under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). President Franklin D.
Roosevelt's New Deal program provided 500 poor, displaced farm families homes,
jobs and an opportunity for a better life during the Great Depression.
Arkansas' first WPA Administrator, William Reynolds Dyess, convinced
government leaders to buy 16,000 acres of mostly swampland in northeast
Arkansas, which would be turned into subsistence farms. The colony was laid out
with a town center, with a hospital, school, businesses and homes. It was
surrounded by mostly 20-acre farms. The colony was named after Dyess following
his death in 1936.
The government provided a new three-, four- or five-room house, barn,
chicken coop and 75 chickens, smokehouse, outhouse, a cow and a mule. Enough
land was cleared for the farmstead. Arkansas residents had to apply for the
opportunity, which included Ray and Carrie Cash. After acceptance, the couple
moved with their children: Roy, 13; Louise, 11; Jack, 5, J.R. (later known as
Johnny), 3 and Reba, 1, from Kingsland to Dyess in March 1935. Joanne and Tommy
were born in Dyess.
"Just like the other 500 families, the Cashes wanted a better life," Sims
The farm wasn't free. Families had to earn the right to eventually buy the
farm by clearing the land to plant crops and make a living. Most farmers grew a
little corn, hay and milo to feed animals. Each operation had a large garden.
Cotton, though, paid the bills.
The Cashes eventually bought the farm for $2,183.60.
"Agriculture was everything back then," said Billy Suthern, a Dyess resident
since birth in 1942 and heritage site employee. He remembers seeing Johnny in
school and talking with him as an adult. "He (Johnny) was just like us; worked
all the time. When he would visit, he was nice to talk to."
Johnny Cash lived in Dyess until he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950 after
graduating high school. To many locals, despite Cash's fame, he's still the boy
and teenager who worked and played hard and liked to hang out with friends at
their houses and the Pop Shop in town.
Mark Fincher's grandparents, Howard and Velma Fincher, moved to Dyess in
1936 as one of the original colonists to farm. Mark owns and works the original
farm. Howard and Velma became friends with the Cashes and their son, Dorsey,
was one of Johnny's best friends.
"It was a tight-knight community," Fincher said. "Johnny stayed at my
grandparent's house with Uncle Dorsey possibly more than his own, probably
because there was some good eating. They had a lot of fun and probably got into
a little trouble together." Dorsey and Johnny went on their senior trip with
other classmates to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1950.
At an early age, Johnny's musical talent was evident. He sang with family in
the fields and at friends' houses. Johnny learned to play the guitar and sang
at church and school functions.
In a video posted on the Academy of Achievement website, Johnny said he knew
at age 4 that he wanted to be a singer after listening to songs played on the
family's Victrola. His experiences on the farm and growing up in Dyess
influenced his music.
The long hours and financial struggles on the farm came through in Cash's
song "Pickin' Time." A devasting flood in 1937 that forced an evacuation of
Dyess is chronicled in the hit song "Five Feet High and Rising." Cash visited
Dyess periodically until his death in 2003.
"A lot of the stuff Johnny grew up with he sang about," Sims said. "He
started in the fields and ended up singing for presidents and kings. It's
amazing how anyone can do that."
Learn more about the Dyess Colony and the Cash home at:
Watch a videos featuring Johnny Cash at:
Matthew Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @progressivwilde
(c) Copyright 2021 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.
Your local weather forecast from DTN can be sent to your email every morning free through DTN Snapshot