The Dyess Colony was established in 1934 as a federal agricultural resettlement community under the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The colony was named for Mississippi County native and Arkansas’s first WPA administrator, William Reynolds Dyess.
Born in 1894, Dyess moved to Arkansas in 1926 to take a job as superintendent of construction for a company engaged in levee work. In 1930 he bought a farm near Osceola, and was named to the Mississippi County Election Commission. Dyess promoted his plan for a colony of small subsistence farms to federal relief administrator, Harry Hopkins, and located “Colonization Project No. 1,” on 16,000 acres of land in Mississippi County. The colony was laid out with a town center at the hub and farmsteads stretching out from the center. The first 13 families arrived in October 1934. On May 22, 1936, an official dedication was held on the second anniversary of the colony. The project was renamed Dyess Colony in honor of its founder, W.R. Dyess, who died in a plane crash earlier that year.
Several weeks after the official dedication, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (at right of podium) visited Dyess and addressed the colonists from the front steps of the colony’s centerpiece, a large Greek Revival Administration Building.
After Dyess’ death, Floyd Sharp became director of the WPA in Arkansas and reorganized the administrative body as “Dyess Colony Incorporated.” Up to this point many colonists had not been advised what financial obligations they had incurred by occupying their homes and working the land. Sharp undertook an appraisal of the properties and set up a system of contracts with colonists to codify their obligations and the process by which they repaid loans and took title to property.
Ray and Carrie Cash were among the nearly 500 colonist families recruited from all over Arkansas to the historic Dyess Colony. The Cashes moved to Dyess in March 1935 with their five children, including Roy, 13; Louise, 11; Jack, 5; J. R., 3; and Reba, 1. Two additional children, Joanne and Tommy, were born in Dyess. The Cash home is one of the few houses remaining in the former New Deal-era colony. Johnny Cash lived in Dyess until he graduated from high school in 1950. His music was greatly influenced by his experiences in Dyess, including such songs as “Pickin’ Time” and “Five Feet High and Rising.”
In 2009, the Arkansas legislature directed Arkansas State University to determine the feasibility of developing the town as a heritage tourism site, focusing on its agricultural heritage and native son Johnny Cash. To carry out this mandate, a Dyess Colony Redevelopment Master Plan was completed in 2010, and the city donated the Administration Building, along with the adjacent Theatre center shell, to Arkansas State University. The restored Administration Building houses exhibits related to the Dyess Colony, the Cash family, and the impact of Dyess on Johnny Cash and his music.
In 2011, Arkansas State University acquired the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, restored through proceeds from an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival. The Master Plan also calls for placing historic markers at appropriate locations and creating a walking/biking trail from the Colony Center to the Cash Home.