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Dyess Arkansas
A Brand New Town

From the "Atlanta Journal, Friday 7 July 2000

"Imagine a town where everything is brand new. The paint is barely dry on the houses. No one has sleep on the hospital sheets. No child has ever written on the school chalkboard. The café hasn’t cooked its first hamburger. And for miles around, wild, flat, fertile land is waiting to be tiled.

It sounds like the pioneer days, but that was Dyess in 1934. Carved from 16,000 acres of snake-infested swamp in northeast Arkansas, it was built on a mission of mercy. It was a New Deal dream town for about 500 farming families from Arkansas who were ruined by the Depression. It was the second chance many thought never would come.

"That was the first house I lived in with paint on it," says Everett Henson, who moved to Dyess in 1934 (March 29, 1936) with his large family when he was 9. Henson, who is 72 and a retired welder, is the town’s unofficial historian. His Memphis home is crammed with boxes of documents and piles of photographs from Dyess. With the blessings of his wife, Johnnie, who also lived in Dyess, he has sprawled the material all over the house. He’s trying to decide what to bring to this Saturday’s reunion of the Dyess Colony, as the town was called. Henson hasn’t missed a reunion since they began in 1981. His collection is so complete that the University of Arkansas wants it. He has given it to the school in his will.      "My father always took pictures and saved stuff," he says by way of explaining his collection. " And I always loved Dyess, because for us, it was a step up.”

It was a step up for another better-known Arkansan. A little boy named J.R. Cash. Cash also moved to Dyess with his family in 1934. He remembers singing his first song--- "I am bound for the promised land" ---as he bounced along in the back of the flatbed truck sent by the government to take them to Dyess.

J.R. Cash grew up and became the legendary country singer Johnny Cash, otherwise known as the "Man in Black." Cash hasn’t been to a reunion at Dyess, but every year he is invited, and every year, there’s a communal hope that he might just walk in.  "But he never does," says Frances Wallace, 68 who moved to Dyess in 1945. She’s organizing the reunion, a potluck to be held in the school cafeteria. Usually, at least 300 people come from all over the country, she says. "He thanks it would spoil our reunion because people would come who never lived in Dyess, just to see him."

For Henson, Dyess occupies a spot in American History, with or without Cash. Dyess was one of 102 towns created by President Franklin Roosevelt for people left destitute by the depression. About 45 were farming communities. In Dyess, each farmer could by between 20 and 40 acres and a five-room clapboard house for no money down at a very low interest rate. He also received a mule, a cow and groceries and supplies through the first year. The town worked a cooperative; the cotton was sold communally, and the families received a share of any profits made of the crops and other Dyess industries, such as the general store and the cannery.

About 500 families moved here in the 30s. The federal government chose them from thousands of applicants for the color of their skin (white), their poverty level (the bottom) and their physical ability to clear land and farm. The town remained a government-operated community until the late "40s. In 1964, Dyess became a regular municipality with a mayor and board of aldermen.

To Henson, Dyess was paradise. It had a new school, a barber, a beauty shop, a café, and a hospital so new and fancy that people from surrounding towns checked in to have babies and get their tonsils yanked out.

"Some people might have lived better than we did, but everyone was proud to be there," Henson Says. "You had just about everything you’d ever need there. It was something. It really was.  No one was starving and everyone was living in a solid home – that was saying a lot in those days – but Dyess was still a community of poor people.

O.B. Gladden, owner of the only remaining store in town, remembers feeling inferior as a teenager here in the ‘50s. We were looked down big time hard, he says. The basketball team went to the state finals, and they were the only team in jackets and ties. Why? Because they didn’t want to be looked down so hard.

It’s difficult to see in modern day Dyess, a village of 466 people, the Promised Land that sparkles in the memories of those who came here more than 60 years ago. Most of the original houses, including Henson’s are gone. Cash’s house, on a quite gravel road, remains occupied.  Neat, red brick ranch houses have popped up here and there amid the vast stretches of soybean and rice fields. There are some abandoned, fallen-in houses, a sorry sight to Henson who remembers when everything here was new. Around the grassy circle that is the town center, there is no barbershop, beauty parlor, café, hospital or even a school that goes past fourth grade. Only the administration building, a two story, white brick structure with stately columns, has survived the years since the New Deal days. Although it is on the National Registry of Historic Places, it sits forlorn and neglected, a sagging sofa on its porch. 

In the center of the circle is a monument to W.R. Dyess, the town’s namesake, who was state administrator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. It is a white concrete monument with a small well at its base.  "Last time I was here, it was full of beer cans," Henson says. Government aide is an unpopular concept these days, but anyone who grew up in Dyess see it differently.

"I believe in it, but I don’t thank it should come in your mailbox." Henson says. When I was growing up, if you waited for it to come to you, it wouldn’t come. We had a little boost and a little help, and I thank it made us better."

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This page was last updated on 17 July 2012 at 11:20 pm

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