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Dyess (Mississippi County)
aka: Dyess Colony Resettlement Area

 

Latitude and Longitude:

35º35'23"N 090º12'48 "W

Elevation:

223 feet

Area:

1.0 square miles (2000 Census)

Population:

515 (2000 Census)

Incorporated:

January 9, 1964

 

Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:

 

1810

1820

1830

1840

1850

1860

1870

1880

1890

1900

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

-

-

-

-

-

-

433

446

466

515

 

One of the most famous “resettlement colonies” for impoverished farmers during the Great Depression was in Dyess (Mississippi County). The Dyess Colony became one of the most well known because one of its early residents was singer Johnny Cash. National attention focused on Arkansas when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the community in 1936. Although smaller now and no longer a government project, Dyess still attracts tourists to northeast Arkansas.

While the Roaring Twenties had a euphoric effect on much of the nation, the agricultural economy of Arkansas did not share in the prosperity. By the end of the 1920s, one disaster after another devastated the small independent farmers of the state. The Flood of 1927 was followed by drought. The stock market crash of 1929 was followed by bank failure. By the end of 1930, approximately two-thirds of Arkansas’s independent farmers lost their farms and fell into tenancy.

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 led to new programs that worked to pump life into the nation’s economy, especially in places like Arkansas, which was among the states hardest hit. Such agencies as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) tried to ease the poverty of destitute farmers and sharecroppers. William Reynolds (W. R.) Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, was Arkansas’s first WPA administrator. He suggested an idea to Harry Hopkins, special advisor to Roosevelt, in which tenant farmers could have a chance to own their own land. FERA would purchase 16,000 acres of uncleared bottomland in Mississippi County, which was rich and fertile though also swampy and snake infested, and would open the land, with $3 million in federal aid, as a “resettlement colony” to homesteading families, who would each have to clear about twenty acres of land for cultivation.

In May 1934, “Colonization Project No. 1” was established in southwestern Mississippi County near the current Arkansas Highway 297. Named for W. R. Dyess, the rural cooperative community was to be assisted by the federal government in helping its farmers have a reasonable chance for success. Some 1,300 men whose names were taken from the relief rolls of Arkansas began construction on May 22, 1934. They had been brought to Mississippi County and put to work building roads and houses. The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out from the middle. The roads leading out were simply numbered rather than named, as in “Road 14.” The men dug ditches to drain the land, and they built 500 small farmhouses. Each house had five rooms with an adjacent barn, privy, and chicken coop. The houses were white-washed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a dining room, plus a front and back porch. Apart from these improvements to the land, the colonists were expected to do the rest themselves. Like all New Deal housing projects, it was intended for white people only.

Interviewers from the government were sent to each county in Arkansas to evaluate volunteers, who had to fill out a six-page application form. Families with a farming background from the state’s relief rolls were selected through the application process, which attracted thousands of hopeful. Criteria for the all-white community included that applicants be destitute from the economic crisis, come from the lowest poverty level, be of “good moral background,” and that husband and wife each have the physical ability to clear the land and farm their acreage. Each farmer would draw a subsistence advance to buy twenty to forty acres of land and one of the new five-room houses, plus a mule, a cow, groceries, and supplies until the first year’s crop came in. All were expected to pay back the advance. The town would operate as a cooperative in which seed was purchased and crops were sold communally. The families would then receive a share of any profits from the crops and other Dyess businesses, such as the general store and cannery. A local scrip called “doodlum” would be used as currency, and after about three years, when the land had been cleared and the fields were producing, the “licensee” would receive a deed to the house and land after repaying the advance.

In the autumn of 1934, the first of about 500 families arrived and began clearing the land; they cut down trees and blasted stumps to farm cotton, corn, and soybeans, along with maintaining a pasture for livestock. In time, along with the administration building, the town center included a community bank, beauty salon/barbershop, blacksmith shop, café, cannery, cotton gin, feedmill, furniture factory, harness shop, hospital, ice house, library, theater, newspaper (the Colony Herald), post office, printing shop, service station/garage, sorghum mill, and school. Members of the colony often performed community tasks on a cooperative basis, though the farms were worked individually.

Colonization Project No. 1 was incorporated in February 1936 as the Dyess Colony, one month after the death of W. R. Dyess in an airplane crash. Because of its size, cooperative nature, and impetus from the federal government, Dyess attracted the attention of the national news media. On June 9, 1936, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit, making a speech at the administration building, having supper at the Dyess Café, and shaking hands with locals for several hours. At the time of her visit, there were about 2,500 residents of the colony.

In 1936, the parents of future music legend Johnny Cash settled there. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash were one of five families selected from Cleveland County. Called “John” by friends and “J. R.” in his high school yearbook, young Cash attended Dyess High School, graduating in 1950 as class vice president. He visited the community throughout his career in show business. In 2004, the Dyess Colony was once again in the spotlight as a movie company arrived to film a portion of Walk the Line, a movie about Cash’s life.

The white-columned administration building, which resembles a Southern plantation house, became a symbol and focal point of controversy in 1940 when the colony was placed under the management of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) due to a political dispute between the state and federal governments. Farmers felt they had become subservient to larger entities, much like the former plantation system, undermining their independence. With the coming of World War II, about half the residents left Dyess for war work, never to return. From its 1936 high point of 2,500 residents, only 515 remained at the time of the 2000 census.

In 1964, Dyess was incorporated as a municipality and is today governed by a mayor and board of aldermen. A reunion is held each summer for former Dyess residents and their descendants, with hundreds of people usually in attendance. Tourists also come to see the place that was home to Johnny Cash during his youth. In 2011, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (Craighead County) purchased Cash's boyhood home for a reported $100,000 and plans to restore the house and several other WPA-built buildings, with the administration building slated to serve as a museum.

The administration building and school currently serve as a community center, with the administration building achieving historical landmark status in 1976. What began as an experiment in resettlement during a time of desperation has transformed itself into a stable, though substantially smaller, community. It also lives on through the legacy of Cash’s song, “Five Feet High and Rising,” based on his experience of Dyess being evacuated during the flood of January 1937, as well as contemporary country singer Buddy Jewell’s song, “Dyess, Arkansas,” in which he sings, “I know there’s bigger cities, but there ain’t no better town.”

For additional information:
Cash, Johnny. Cash: The Autobiography. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997.

Dyess Arkansas Resource Guide. http://www.usacitiesonline.com/arcountydyesshev.htm (accessed November 17, 2005).  

Henson, Everett Dewey. “Memories of Dyess Colony.” Delta Historical Review 2 (Summer 1990): 3–21.

Holley, Donald. “Trouble in Paradise: Dyess Colony and Arkansas Politics.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 32 (Autumn 1973): 203–216.  

———. Uncle Sam’s Farmers: The New Deal Communities in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Pittman, Dan W. “The Founding of Dyess Colony.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 29 (Winter 1970): 313–326.

Smith, Freddy Carl. “Shadows over Goshen: Plain Whites, Progressives and Paternalism in the Depression South.” PhD diss., University of Southern Mississippi, 2008. 

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 12/1/2011

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