On what would have been Johnny Cash's 80th birthday, dozens of family members joined hundreds of fans and residents in the east Arkansas town of Dyess Sunday to formally mark the beginning of work to restore his boyhood home.
"This project has been in the making for several years and I never thought that it would actually come to fruition," said daughter Rosanne Cash, who led the ceremony at the Dyess Community Center. "We never foresaw that it would take on this kind of life."
Ray and Carrie Cash moved with their children to the community in 1935. It was created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal program. They labored over 40 acres of land, which provided the inspiration for many of Johnny Cash's classic songs.
During a 1969 concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, Cash told the crowd, "after I got into the music field and started writing and recording and singing songs about the things I knew, I wrote a lot of songs about life as I knew it back when I was a little, bitty boy."
He then sang "Five Feet High and Rising," which tells the story of the Mississippi River flooding his community. Afterward Cash said, "I was four years old at the time and I can't remember a lot about it, but daddy said that we got back home the house was full of mud, chickens and pigs and dogs and nine bullfrogs. Mama cleaned the house out that winter and the next spring daddy and my older brother Roy cleared a lot more cotton land and the cotton grew tall in 1938."
It's that connection that has prompted so many to be interested in preserving the small, dilapidated home, which was lived in by various people outside of the Cash family until being bought recently by Arkansas State University.
In recent weeks the house has been lifted onto the back of a truck and moved to the back of the lot so that work can begin to lay a new foundation.
"Anybody who's ever been in Dyess, Arkansas, knows that this is gumbo soil up here and it moves and it's very difficult to keep a house level," said Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of ASU's Arkansas Heritage Sites. "We're going to be hauling out all of that gumbo soil and putting in good, solid packed soil and a new foundation, then we'll set the house back on that."
After taking part in Sunday's ceremony, Johnny Cash's brother, Tommy Cash, said, "My parents would really be proud that we're being honored in this way. I couldn't help but think about them all day today and how much they would enjoy being here. My sister Joanne and I are the last two of the siblings, and we're just overjoyed about what's going on. The restoration of our old home place is a very exciting thing for all of us."
Organizers are working with the family to prepare to decorate the home as it looked in the 1930s.
In addition to the Cash home, ASU plans to restore the historic Dyess Administration building and a local theater. So far the university has raised $1 million for the overall project, which is budgeted at $3.4 million, with hopes the restoration of the house and administration building can be completed and opened to the public by the summer of 2013.
After Sunday's event, many fans drove over to see the former Cash home, which is along a dirt road at 4791 W. County Road 924, just outside of town.
"I grew up in South Africa, I was born there, and my dad had an old Johnny Cash cassette tape and I listened to that all over Africa and all over the states," said Matt Moler, who today lives near Springfield, Mo. "He's always been a part of my life, his music has, ever since I was a kid, all the way to the other side of the world, so it's just been a great opportunity being here today."
The music legend died in 2003 and is considered by many to be the most influential musician to come from Arkansas.