Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Dyess Colony

"My family was saved by the WPA." - Rosanne Cash

Back in 1934, the Roosevelt Administration established the Dyess Colony in far Eastern Arkansas. It was built on a swamp and covered 16,000 acres. It was to be a small collective meant to pull people out of the Depression. At its height, the Dyess Colony had more than 2,500 residents. The residents were called "representative colonists" and were chosen for their ability to be self-sufficient yet willingness to cooperate. They would share the profits from the crops, the general store and the cannery. They even had their own currency called "doodlum".

Roscoe Phillips, who was born at Dyess 77 years ago, stated in an interview for the Associated Press, "This was a practice in socialism. They took people who had nothing and gave us something. It wouldn't happen today."

The Dyess Colony was continuously under threat. Arkansas Governor Bailey, in 1939, accused the state WPA director Floyd Sharp of opposing him during his election to a second term. That year Bailey and his supporters tried to force an audit the books of Dyess Colony, Inc. Dyess supporters were able to kill the bill through filibuster. However, Bailey wasn’t done. In March 1939, Governor Bailey claiming that the Colony had failed to pay franchise tax to the state, was able to shut down the Dyess Colony, Inc., which left it without legal authority to do business in Arkansas.

According to the official site of the Historic Dyess Colony, "On March 22, 1939, Floyd Sharp set up the Dyess Rural Rehabilitation Corporation as a nonprofit replacement administrator and successor to Dyess Colony, Inc. By this time, the WPA was anxious to end its involvement with Dyess and similar colony projects, and Sharp felt that his own involvement made the Colony a target of the governor. Sharp approached the Little Rock Regional Director of the Farm Security Administration, T. Roy Reid, asking about the possibility of transferring the Dyess Colony to his agency. Reid agreed, and in November 1939 the FSA assumed control of the Dyess Colony Corporation. In 1964, Dyess was incorporated as a municipality governed by a mayor and board of aldermen."

The most famous representative colonist of the Dyess Colony was Johnny Cash. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture,
"1936, the parents of future music legend Johnny Cash settled there. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash were one of five families selected from Cleveland County. Called "John" by friends and "J. R." in his high school yearbook, young Cash attended Dyess High School, graduating in 1950 as class vice president. He visited the community throughout his career in show business."

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