Reflections on visiting the childhood Arkansas home of my father, J.R. “Johnny” Cash
Author Rosanne Cash
J.R. Cash was 3 years old when he first stepped into what would be his childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, in 1935. He told me, his eldest daughter, many times that it was his first memory: the five empty cans of paint sitting in the front room of a freshly painted, gleaming, perfect five-room cottage that he understood, with the unmitigated joy of a small child, belonged to him and his family. That moment made an indelible imprint. Virtually his next memory, one of which he spoke fondly his entire life, was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Dyess Colony on June 9, 1936, where she made a point to shake the hand of every single one of the 2,500 men, women and children who lived there.
Dyess Colony wasn’t just a community, but an ambitious effort by the Works Progress Administration under FDR’s New Deal to help desperate families recovering from both the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. The area was infested with snakes and mosquitoes and tangled with stumps and boulders, but the rich sticky mud, which came to be known as “gumbo soil,” must have felt like salvation to those families who were relocating from once-great farming communities destroyed by drought. The federal government had bought up 16,000 acres of this gumbo soil, drained it and built brand-new cottages for 500 families. In addition to a cottage, each family would get 20 to 40 acres for farming, seed and machinery to plant and till, and a mule to pull the plow.
My grandparents, Ray and Carrie Cash, were among the first to apply for resettlement to Dyess from their crude home in the woods near Kingsland, Arkansas, where Ray had been doing odd jobs and riding the rails to look for work, trying to keep his family of five children fed. There was an extensive application process, including a detailed written questionnaire and a personal interview with a field worker. Once accepted, my grandparents were taken to the colony to pick out their new home—House 266, Road 3—and get a physical examination at the hospital. They were on probation for a year. If all went well, they could eventually buy their land and house from the government and own it free and clear.
The work was torturously difficult. My grandfather and my Uncle Roy, the oldest boy, worked every daylight hour to pull out the trees, stumps, briars and rocks and pound the gumbo soil into something that could reasonably be tilled. It would take years before a decent cotton crop came in. Some people gave up and went back to their previous lives. In the records that exist from 1935 to 1937, someone thought to keep a list of the reasons people left Dyess Colony. “General dissatisfaction” was at the top of the list, but “discouraged by high water,” “too much mud” and “objects to everything” were also significant entries.
But the Cash family stayed, persevered, worked dawn to dusk without electricity or indoor plumbing, and things got better. They read by a coal oil lamp in the evening, and they made enough money to buy a battery-operated radio, which was a kind of epiphany that seeded my father’s future. They began not just to survive but to create stability and a buffer against catastrophe, which came only two years later, in 1937, when the Mississippi flooded and wiped out their progress.
During the flood, my grandpa stayed to protect the house, but my grandmother and the children were relocated to Central Arkansas. Many families didn’t return after the flood, but the Cashes came back, cleared the mud out of the house and started over. In the next few years, two more children, my Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tommy, were born in House 266.
My grandmother Carrie led a life that is difficult for me to imagine, ensconced in my New York City brownstone, with my dishwasher running and my reading light set at a comfortable brilliance, with a glass of wine at hand and music on the stereo. My grandfather was burdened and overworked and not always kind or even civil. Carrie raised seven children, cooked and cleaned without electricity or running water and worked in the fields alongside the men. She also took in laundry to make extra money to pay for singing lessons for my dad, who loved music beyond comprehension and who said, after the death of his beloved brother Jack, who was killed at the age of 14 in a horrific accident while working a table saw, that music was “my magic to take me through all the dark places.” (Fortunately, Grandma Carrie chose a sensitive singing teacher who immediately recognized my father’s prodigious natural gifts and told my grandmother not to bring him back to her. “He’s got something special, and I don’t want to mess it up,” she said. I wish I could thank her for protecting the future.)
My grandparents bought their property from the government in 1938 for $2,183.60. In 1945, they got electricity. In 1950, after graduating from Dyess High School, my dad moved away from the Sunken Lands to join the Air Force, never to live in Arkansas again. From where he was based in Landsberg, Germany, in 1953, he wrote his fiancée in San Antonio, my mother Vivian, about his family farm in Dyess: “Every tree, stump, bush or every square foot of that place has a memory for me. Every inch of that place makes me think of something different, something wonderful and precious that happened.”
In 2007, radio personality and entertainer Gene Williams, a Dyess native, made a donation to the city to restore the old administration building, and, along with a grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the building was transferred to Arkansas State University to be developed as part of an ASU Heritage Site. In 2010, the university contacted me and asked if the Cash family would be interested in being involved in the Historic Dyess Colony project and the eventual restoration of my dad’s boyhood home. The Cash house was one of only a few dozen still standing from the original 500 built in 1934. I was delighted. Of all the hundreds of projects about, around, for and in honor of my dad that I am solicited to participate in or endorse, this was virtually the only one that captured my immediate attention and, soon, my whole heart. In 2011, ASU acquired the house. Later that year, my family participated in the first fundraising concert for the project, with performers including Kris Kristofferson, George Jones and many members of my family, including my husband and songwriting partner, John Leventhal. We performed for 7,000 proud Arkansans, and a dream was ignited.
Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tommy were the chief consultants on the restoration, and my aunt, blessed with a near-photographic memory, helped the university team, led by the indomitable director of the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites program, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, find the exact pattern of linoleum, the identical wood-burning stove, the same kind of curtains and tablecloths and even the same brands of canned foods and flour to stock the pantry shelves. Aunt Joanne also donated some of the original items: a green enamel “pie safe,” an upright piano that was a much later acquisition by my grandparents and a source of tremendous pride, and even my grandmother’s handbag, which was laid lovingly across the handmade quilt on the larger of two beds in my grandparents’ (and the youngest children’s) bedroom.
My sisters and I donated every article we had saved from Dad’s childhood—some of which my mother had kept carefully stored in Dad’s Air Force trunk, which he left with her after their divorce—for the exhibits planned for the newly restored administration building at the top of the circle in the Dyess town center. We had letters and postcards, a little book Dad had kept from his senior prom with autographs of his classmates, the Air Force trunk and a uniform shirt, yearbooks and report cards, and, heartbreakingly, his big brother Jack’s pillow, which he took with him everywhere until he left it with my mother for safekeeping in 1968.
On August 16, 2014, a scorching day in the flat Delta bottom land, the Dyess house and the pristine administration building exhibits opened to much fanfare. On the town circle, speeches by numerous town, county and state officials, as well as my sisters, children, aunt, uncle and me, were delivered to a large crowd of attendees who fanned themselves furiously.
At 8 that morning, before the festivities, Dr. Hawkins and some of her team met me, Uncle Tommy and Aunt Joanne (the last surviving original occupants) and 25 other family members at House 266 to show us in private the results of four years of hard work: a perfectly reconstructed tableau of our ancestry.
When I walked into the house, the strangest feeling overcame me — a sensation I imagine as close as I will ever get to actual time travel: I was visiting my father’s childhood. I moved through the living room, under the handmade quilt, which was roped to the ceiling above the sofa, ready to be pulled down for my grandma’s weekly sewing circle with ladies who had been dead for decades. I went past the dark red armchair in the corner with the Memphis Press-Scimitar, dated July 13, 1947, laid across the seat, and into the kitchen with the heavy black cast iron skillets stacked on the wood-burning stove. I came through the little dining area, back toward the front door, and I reached over to play a chord on the old upright piano. It was horrendously out of tune. I looked at Ruth: “Are you going to tune it?” She smiled: “No. They wouldn’t have had the money to do that.”
I wandered into my dad’s bedroom, which had two iron beds, neatly made up with hand-stitched quilts. The one on the right had been Dad and Jack’s. Three of my daughters followed me into the bedroom. We stood and looked quietly into the past, imagining a little boy who slept beside his big brother and hero for the first 12 years of his life, and who then slept alone with Jack’s pillow. Next to the door, young J.R. Cash had written his name on the wall, so tiny that his mother wouldn’t have noticed it when she came in to clean his room, but clearly a rebellious little mark of territoriality.
What would he have thought of me? When he was 3 years old, or 8 years old, or 12 years old, could he even imagine that he would have a daughter? Could he conceive that I might step into his bedroom when I was older than his own mother at the time, and when he had already lived a life unimaginably large, one that might have made Jack proud, on a day when he himself had already been in the ground for more than a decade? Would he have recognized those three young women, his own granddaughters, who followed me into the room?
Oddly, I was filled with regret. It was not an entirely sweet moment. I’m not one of those people who think their loved ones are in heaven looking down on earthly events with benevolent smiles. He would never know about this day, and it would have meant the world to him. It pierced me. Maybe a person isn’t supposed to contemplate such things: the life of a parent in its simultaneous entirety, the child and the old man at the very same moment, knowing the fullness of the life ahead for the boy and the unfair and inevitable end for the old man. But here it was, laid out in a five-room cottage, the same linoleum, the same pots and pans, his name scratched into the wall: J.R. Cash, Dyess, Arkansas, 1935. Only now, writing about it in retrospect, can I allow myself to think about what it means. How lucky I am, and how brave I must learn to be, to face the enormous terrain of the past and to see clearly those people to whom I owe my existence scattered throughout the landscape, and to keep my counsel while I watch how the shadows cast by the light of the coal oil lamp dance far into the future.
Rosanne Cash is a Grammy Award–winning singer/songwriter and best-selling author.