REX NELSON: Project of the year

As the end of another year approaches, one can look back on 2016 economic development projects and try to determine which ones will most benefit Arkansas. Earlier this month, for example, it was reported that Big River Steel at Osceola had produced its first hot-roll coil tube. The plant, which sits on a 1,300-acre tract along the Mississippi River, is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of steel each year with a work force of 525 people.

That's an important project for Arkansas. However, the project that might have an even greater impact on the state in the decades ahead is also in Mississippi County. It's not a factory. It's the former Dyess Colony, where a new visitors' center was dedicated May 21. My vote for economic development project of the year goes to Dyess. Why? First, because tourism must be recognized as a large piece of the economic development puzzle in Arkansas. The Dyess restoration gives those traveling between Memphis and St. Louis a reason to stop in our state. But there's something far more important going on here. The project represents a growing willingness to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of this state.

When Arkansans feel better about themselves, those looking to relocate their businesses and families here will feel better about Arkansas. And who better than an internationally known performer such as the late Johnny Cash to pull us together? Bill Clinton may be the best-known Arkansan, but politics tends to divide us. Music, on the other hand, can unite us. Ruth Hawkins, the executive director of Arkansas State University's Heritage Sites program, understands that. It's why she has worked for years to obtain grants and private donations to restore structures at Dyess. The resettlement colony was created in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression. Almost 500 poor Arkansas farm families came there. Cash's family made the long trip from the pine woods around Kingsland in south Arkansas to the bottomland hardwoods of northeast Arkansas to resettle in 1935. Johnny Cash, who was known in Dyess as J.R., died in 2003.

A town center was established as the hub of the colony with small farmsteads of 20 to 40 acres each stretching out from there. The first 13 families arrived at Dyess in October 1934. An official dedication finally was held in May 1936 with the colony named for W.R. Dyess, the state's first Works Progress Administration manager who had been killed earlier that year in a plane crash. The visitors' center is on the site of a former theater and what was known as the Pop Shop. When the original community building burned, a theater was built in 1947. Only the front façade was standing when ASU began renovations. This year's opening of the visitors' center is part of the second phase of renovations. The first phase concluded in August 2014 when the restoration of the administration building was completed and the former Cash home was opened to the public.

The first Johnny Cash Heritage Festival will be held next fall at Dyess. Hawkins said the event, scheduled for Oct. 19-21, will include educational and entertainment components. She said much work still must be done to achieve her goal of making Dyess a well-known tourist destination. Farmstead buildings will be re-created at the Cash home along with additional services for tourists who visit the home. "It's fitting to incorporate the New Deal heritage that was part of Johnny Cash's formative years into a major annual event that shines light on a critical era that's fading from memory," Hawkins said. ASU officials are working closely with Johnny Cash's daughter, Rosanne Cash, on the festival.

"We foresee an annual festival that will include both world-renowned artists on the main stage and local musicians on smaller stages," Rosanne Cash said when the festival was announced. "This new tradition will honor the art of my father, the resilience of the Cash family and all the hardworking families of Dyess Colony, and the very origins of my dad's musical inspiration in the Sunken Lands."

"This is about the people," said Joanne Cash Yates, Johnny Cash's sister. "It's about the many families who lived in the Dyess Colony, survived and worked hard to make a living and raise a family."

Last spring, Rosanne Cash took part in a fundraiser for the Dyess project at the Governor's Mansion. She said that day that her father had told her that his first memory after Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family to Dyess was "going into this new home that really saved their lives, that the government had provided, and that there were five empty cans of paint sitting in the front room. I put that right into a song I wrote called 'The Sunken Lands.' The first line is 'five cans of paint.' When Arkansas State University came to the family and said we want to do this, I immediately said yes. We all said yes because we knew it would be important to my dad. He always talked about where he grew up and was so proud of it. ... So many of the songs he wrote came from there."

While I think the Dyess restoration is the project of the year in Arkansas, the most deserved award presentation occurred when Hawkins received a lifetime achievement award during the 75th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. The projects she has overseen help Arkansans take more pride in their heritage and hopefully believe more in their own capabilities.


Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 12/28/2016