Where We Gonna Get It, Dad? Johnny Cash at the Dyess Colony

Young Johnny Cash. Cash moved to the colony in 1934 with his parents and five siblings.

Young Johnny Cash
Cash moved to the colony in 1934 with his parents and five siblings.

“Will we get cold and hungry, will times be very bad? When we’re needin’ bread and meat, Where we gonna get it, Dad?”

Upon hearing Johnny Cash sing those lyrics, one wouldn’t typically think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal, or any of the myriad programs that arose from the FDR administration’s response to the Great Depression. In fact, that’s not what the song is about. But it could easily describe how Cash and his family felt as they faced poverty and hunger when he was a young boy. Fortunately, the Cashes made it through those hard times thanks to a New Deal agricultural program that helped resettle destitute farmers.

Dyess Housing. Five hundred homes were constructed at the colony. They included acreage, a barn, a chicken coop, and a mule.

Dyess Housing
Five hundred homes were constructed at the colony. They included acreage, a barn, a chicken coop, and a mule.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The name of the experimental program was far from glamourous: Colonization Project #1, later called the Dyess Colony after William Dyess, an Arkansas FERA administrator. But for the Cashes, it had to be dazzling. Indeed, Johnny Cash called it “the promised land” in his autobiography. Arriving in 1935 when the future country music star was just three years old, they were among the five hundred families who were resettled on wild but fertile land that needed tending.

All were given a plot of land complete with a barn, chicken house, shed, a five-room house, and enough money to begin the arduous task of clearing the land and growing crops. A community center, administration building, schools, a theatre, and other buildings rounded out the small community.

Porch at Dyess Colony, 1940

Porch at Dyess Colony, 1940
The Colony was named for William Reynolds Dyess, the first Arkansas administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) after he was killed in a plane crash in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

While Johnny Cash’s father and other farmers remained independent and were expected to pay the government back, they also participated in cooperative efforts to buy supplies and sell crops.

After visiting the town in 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about it in her column, My Day. She watched children scurry about, and looked into the faces of these pioneers, saying, “I decided they had character and courage to make good when an opportunity offered and at last that opportunity seemed to be within their reach.” Perhaps little “J.R.” Cash was among those scurrying children.

Canning Workshop. A Dyess Colony cooperative project for Arkansas farmers during the Depression.

Canning Workshop
A Dyess Colony cooperative project for Arkansas farmers during the Depression.
Photo Credit: Ben Shahn, FSA

It was, like many such programs, imperfect, particularly in its treatment of African Americans, who were excluded from joining the whites-only Colony. Dyess, after lying in disrepair for many years, is now an historic site, with the Greek columned administration center, the singer’s boyhood home on “Road 3,” and other buildings restored. This year, both the singer and the New Deal were honored at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival,  held in October on the grounds of the Dyess Colony. Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson were among the singers performing in the field next to Cash’s restored house.

The New Deal saved Johnny Cash’s family. Perhaps it’s ironic that his fame, in turn, has saved Dyess.

Colony Administration Building, Dyess, Arkansas

Colony Administration Building
Dyess, Arkansas Administration Building  Source

Class of 1950 Dyess High School

Class of 1950
Dyess High School. Photo provided by Michael Boyink.  Source
Photo Credit: Courtesy, U-A Historic Dyess Colony


J.R.Cash boyhood home
Dyess, Arkansas
Photo Credit: Courtesy U-A, Historic Dyess Colony

Cash family home
Recently restored
Photo Credit: Courtesy U-A, Historic Dyess Colony

Susan Rubenstein DeMasi is the author of the 2016 biography, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. She is a visiting scholar in this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The New Deal Era’s Federal Writers’ Project,” as well as a contributor to an upcoming book on the literary legacy of the FWP, edited by Sara Rutkowski, for the University of Massachusetts Press. [email protected]

Dixie Homes – Memphis TN

One of Memphis’ first two public housing ventures was Dixie Homes, built for African American residents, after the Memphis Housing Authority was established in 1935. “Memphis became the second city in the nation, following New York, to establish a local housing authority” following the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934.

Consisting of 633 units, the project cost $3,400,000 for both facilities–the first was constructed for whites in keeping with the South’s segregation policies. Dixie Homes was constructed following demolition of the Quimby Bayou swamp area slums, and was designed in the two-story, commons area block-style meant to encourage a sense of community. Dixie Homes was demolished in 2006.

Elvis Slept Here

Elvis PresleyThe federal government’s foray into urban redevelopment that began under the New Deal reshaped cities across America—with mixed success. The Public Works Administration (PWA) began clearing slums in many cities in 1934, but work was temporarily halted after a Supreme Court ruling in 1935 prevented the federal government from condemning private property for low-cost housing. That left the housing projects to local control.

Memphis, Tennessee was one of the first cities in the nation to pick up the banner of housing for its poor. It chose two rundown, crowded neighborhoods—uptown Memphis and Quimby Bayou—to site the first two of five public housing projects paid for with New Deal funds.

Public housing was subject to local segregation laws, and Lauderdale Courts, one of the first such housing projects in the nation, was for whites only. Constructed in 1938, Lauderdale Courts’ Colonial Revival-style apartment buildings were arranged around a common area and connected via bisecting walkways, a design feature meant to foster community relationships. But by mid-1990s Lauderdale Courts was deemed derelict. What ultimately saved it from the wrecking ball was unit #328—home to a teenaged Elvis Presley and his parents from 1949 until 1953.

Elvis Presley Apartment, Lauderdale CourtElvis fans forged partnerships with local preservationists, historians, and developers to save Lauderdale Courts and transform it into mixed-income housing.  After a $36 million rehab it reopened in July 2004 as Uptown Square, with 347 apartment homes. It is one of the few New Deal housing developments still in existence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The office still bears the PWA plaque. Dixie Homes opened in 1938 for black families. It featured two-story apartment-style homes with balconies and a commons, meant to encourage community building. Dixie Homes was demolished in 2006. LeMoyne Gardens, constructed in 1941 for black families, was demolished in the 1990s despite having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fate of Memphis’s two other New Deal housing projects is still in play. Lamar Terrace, built in 1940 for whites, is undergoing redevelopment as University Place, mixed-income housing. The fate of William H. Foote Homes, constructed for blacks in 1940, is in Limbo. The City had planned to raze it and redevelop the area for mixed-income housing. But a grassroots organization in the Vance neighborhood, opposed the plan, which it said would disperse longtime residents.

Recently, the group convinced the City to put the demolition on hold in order to consider the community’s own proposal, which calls for renovation, not removal, of these homes. The group is holding fast to the original New Deal vision of fostering relationships within a community.

Susan is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Mississippi and is particularly focused on murals and other New Deal sites in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Susan writes a regular column for a Mississippi historic preservation blog under the pen name Suzassippi.