Cotton and Country

Cash Crop

Matt Wilde
By  Matthew Wilde , Progressive Farmer Crops Editor
Johnny Cash's boyhood home, near Dyess, Arkansas (Matthew Wilde)

Through a thick cloud of dust, Mark Fincher could see the faint outline of a small, 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 (the country singer died in 2003), 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 as a boy. 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," says Fincher, whose family was friends with the Cashes. "When I started cutting beans, I didn't have air-conditioning in the combine.

"What the farmers in the 1940s did in the mule days, it was unreal," he adds. "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 restored boyhood home, part of the Historic Dyess Colony heritage site maintained by ASU. The university acquired the former Cash residence in 2011.

The home, about two miles from Dyess, is open for tours. People can see the upright piano that Johnny's mother played as the family gathered around for sing-alongs. 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 Dyess Colony.

"People from all around the world and all walks of life come here," says 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 as 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 its nearly 20-year farming run in the area.

AG RESETTLEMENT COMMUNITY

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 plan 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, 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 each family 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 Ray and Carrie Cash did. After being approved, 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. Two other children, Joanne and Tommy, were born in Dyess.

"Just like the other 500 families, the Cashes wanted a better life," Sims says.

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.

CASH MEMORIES

Johnny Cash lived in Dyess until joining the U.S. Air Force in 1950 after graduating from high school. To family and friends, despite his fame, he was still the boy and teen known as J.R. (his given name before changing it to John and then Johnny), who worked and played hard, and liked to hang out with friends at their houses.

Mark Fincher's grandparents, Howard and Velma Fincher, moved to Dyess in 1936 as one of the original colonists. 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-knit community," Fincher says. "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." They went on a senior trip with other high school 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 says 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 devastating 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.

"A lot of the stuff Johnny grew up with he sang about," Sims adds. "He started in the fields and ended up singing for presidents and kings. It's amazing how anyone can do that."

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-- Learn more about the Dyess Colony and the Cash home at dyesscash.astate.edu

-- Follow the latest from Matthew Wilde, Crops Editor, by visiting the Production Blogs at dtnpf.com or following him on Twitter @progressivwilde

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