Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
After years of fundraising and restoration work, Johnny Cash's boyhood home in east Arkansas is officially open to the public as a museum. A grand opening ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 16, drew hundreds to the town circle in Dyess.
Just outside of town, down a gravel road, the small farm house, which Cash's parents moved to when he was 3, looks brand new, restored to the way it looked when the Cash family arrived in the middle of the Great Depression. It's a drastic change from the dilapidated, tilted structure that in 2006 was declared one of the state's most endangered places, along with the Dyess Administration Building.
"I saw the house in 2011 when Arkansas State University had just purchased it and it was inconceivable that it could look as it does today," daughter Rosanne Cash said. "We were very worried the house would be on the ground before Dr. Hawkins' team could get to it."
Ruth Hawkins is executive director of the school's Arkansas Heritage Sites program and has been overseeing the project. After buying the home for $100,000 that April, Hawkins said the program took immediate steps to secure the structure.
The biggest challenge, she said, was replacing the foundation.
"Literally, most of our money went into the ground," Hawkins said.
The gumbo soil in the region is constantly shifting, which causes houses to go out of level. By the time a ceremony was held on Feb. 26, 2012, to formally mark the beginning of the restoration, the house had been lifted onto a trailer in the back of the lot so that a deep concrete foundation could be poured in the ground. It was eventually buried by a layer of soil and the home put back in place, sitting on original concrete piers.
Crews then began ripping out layers of wall coverings and linoleum.
"The biggest surprise to us was, because it was in such bad shape when we got it, we assumed that there was not a lot left of the original material in the house. But as we got into it, we found, I would say, that probably 75 to 80 percent of the original material is there," Hawkins said. That includes the original wooden floor and wood panel walls.
Cash's family was one of 500 selected to live in Dyess, which was a planned community, created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Each was given a piece of farmland, which included a new house.
In the 1968 documentary film "Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music," the country music icon drives an RV with family members into Dyess, telling stories as he steers through the town circle, by the gas station, then out to the house, which appears vacant. He and his sister Louise share recollections while walking through it.
"We moved into this house in the winter of 1935. There were five cans of paint sitting there on the floor," Cash said, "and every one of us sat down in the middle of the floor and cried."
"First new house we'd ever owned," she responds.
Clips of the documentary are now featured in exhibits at the Dyess Administration Building, which was also restored as part of the project. They're key in helping visitors visualize Johnny Cash in what can be seen there today.
Most of the physical work on the house was completed by October 2012, with Cash's younger brother Tommy and sister Joanne then helping to decorate it with furnishings identical to what was inside when they lived there. Some came from other houses from the same time period in Dyess, some were purchased and more than 600 items were donated by more than 100 people.
Before Saturday's ceremony, Rosanne Cash said she brought three of her children into what was her dad's bedroom, "and the four of us stood there and wept. It was the oddest sensation thinking of my dad as a little boy in that very spot and what if he could have seen his middle-aged daughter and three of his grandchildren walk in that room, how would he have felt? Could he even conceive it? It was too much."
Long before this project, Johnny Cash fans from around the world have been making their way to the town to see the place that he often talked and sang about. Now for $10, anyone can walk inside the home to experience it for themselves.
Hawkins says $3.3 million has been spent on the project, which includes the house, the Administration Building and the preservation of the façade of the town's movie theater. Much of the money has been raised through annual fundraising concerts, with the fourth held Friday, Aug. 15, in Jonesboro.
After Saturday's ceremony, the house opened for tours, with 600 people going through that first day, Hawkins said.
While the house is essentially complete, much work remains for the project. There are plans to rebuild the rest of the theater, which is where Cash saw movies as a boy, and use its box office as the place where visitors can buy tickets to tour the house. There are also plans to build outbuildings as were originally behind the house and to build a replica house nearby that will serve as a caretaker office and provide additional visitor services and parking.
During Saturday's event, Rosanne Cash told the crowd she typically turns down requests to take part in Johnny Cash projects, but that this one was different.
"We have all been onboard from day one because this is real, it's true, it's authentic. It's the thing that would have meant the most to my father. I don't speak for him, I don't give him opinions since he has passed away, but this is one thing I can say for certain. This would have meant more to him than any other honor, any Grammy, any gold record, THIS."