Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
The Law of Word Coincidence is the fact that whenever you learn a new word or fact that new word or fact begins to pop up everywhere in conversation, television and books. So one day you hear for the first time the word “nugatory” and the next day a character on television is using it.
The law befell The Observer’s house over the Thanksgiving holiday. In-laws from east and west who are fans of Johnny Cash were interested to discover he was from Arkansas, and wanted to know where he was raised. That town is Dyess, of course.
All The Observer knew about Dyess was that it was in the Delta, which has raised a good crop of musicians.
That was Wednesday. Friday we decided to make a driving tour and headed in the direction of the Delta, to familiarize the Arizona relative with its terrain of field and swamp. Mid-day, while trying to find a place to stop for a picnic, we stopped at the newish Central Delta Museum and Visitors Center, a refurbished train station on West Cypress Street in Brinkley.
Inside were exhibits on Brinkley’s claims to fame: The 1909 “cyclone” that left 23 dead, the life of Louis Jordan, record old growth cypress trees in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. There were also family histories and some sadly mangy stuffed ducks, minks and other critters.
A front page of the Arkansas Gazette was devoted to a 1930s crash of a passenger plane near Goodwin (St. Francis County) in which all aboard perished. It was at the time the greatest passenger plane disaster in the country. Listed among the dead was a W.R. Dyess, who, it turns out, the town of Dyess, in Mississippi County, was named for. So there — we had Johnny Cash’s birthplace nailed down.
Then we learned more. An obituary on the same page as a story about the crash revealed Mr. Dyess’ address. At the time of his death, he lived in Little Rock. He lived four doors down from where The Observer lives now.
Those more familiar with the Tenant Farmers Union and the history of the Delta will know that Dyess was founded in 1934 as an agricultural project of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and business and public services in the town, made up of 500 individual farms, were jointly owned and operated. The experiment was meant to show how former tenant farmers and sharecroppers could become self-sufficient.
An article published in The Nation in 1937 observed that “sharecroppers and destitute farm workers” couldn’t succeed at running their own farms because of a lack of education and “their generally bad physical condition. In the South they have lived for generations in mosquito-infested and unsanitary surroundings, on an improper diet, and with totally inadequate medical care. A large proportion of them are afflicted with insidious, energy-sapping diseases. The prevalence of malaria, pellagra, hernia, bad teeth, and diseased tonsils is without question a major cause of the shiftlessness and indolence with which these people are so often reproached. At the clinic established by the government at the Dyess colony in Arkansas it was discovered that practically every family examined for admission to the colony had one or more of these afflictions.
“After a few months’ treatment the Dyess settlers were so improved in appearance and morale that they did not seem to be the same people. Their capacity and desire for work were noticeably increased. Their children, when sent to nearby public schools and placed in classes with children from local non-colony families, led their classes. It would be hard to find more convincing evidence both of the fundamentally worth-while stock of these people and of the deterrent effects of poor health.”
In one sense, it makes one feel like Arkansas has come a long way. But in another, one realizes, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. How far off is Utopia, anyway?
The Observer continues to be amused by the enormous air-filled nylon snowmen and Santas seen around town. Many are either in a state of deflation or they’re pulling at their tethers, trying to break free.
Yesterday, a snowman we saw appeared to have one too many. He was leaning over the rail at Club Coconuts, looking for all the world like a pale fratboy on spring break.