LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's been almost a decade since Johnny Cash passed away. But fans still travel from around the world to see his boyhood home in the east Arkansas town of Dyess. Now, work is underway to restore the small house and turn it into a museum, not only as a tribute to Cash, but also to tell the history of the town. Dyess was created during the Great Depression as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. Michael Hibblen with member station KUAR has the story.
JOANNE CASH YATES: Are you ready to go in?
TOMMY CASH: I am.
MICHAEL HIBBLEN, BYLINE: Johnny Cash's younger brother Tommy and sister Joanne Cash Yates recently got to go inside the small house for the first time since work to restore it got under way.
YATES: Oh, wow. Oh, I can't believe you've done so much.
HIBBLEN: Brother Tommy hadn't seen it since Arkansas State University bought the house last year.
T. CASH: I'm just thrilled that they could take what was basic here and make it into a beautiful home like it was in 1935. You know, I can't imagine this is really happening. And all the rooms, they looked huge when we were kids...
YATES: They did, they did.
HIBBLEN: His brother Johnny was only three when his parents moved into the house on 20 acres of farmland. At the height of his fame, Johnny Cash often talked about his childhood there, as in this concert from 1969.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CONCERT)
JOHNNY CASH: We come from the flat, black delta land in Arkansas - that's one of the places we come from. And after I got into the music field and started writing and recorded 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...
HIBBLEN: Cash's hometown of Dyess in northeast Arkansas was a planned community. It was created during the Great Depression as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Dr. Ruth Hawkins is director of the Arkansas Heritage Sites program at Arkansas State University. She's overseeing efforts to restore the Cash home, along with the town's administration building and an old movie theater.
DR. RUTH HAWKINS: This was an agricultural resettlement colony and the Cash family were among the 500 colonists that were recruited to come here to get a new start in life.
HIBBLEN: The Sims family moved to Dyess in the 1960s, and Larry Sims grew up just down the street from the Cash house. Today, he is the mayor of Dyess and wants visitors to get the town's full history.
LARRY SIMS: Of course, we known Johnny Cash is going to bring them here, but we want to tell them about the people that struggled and how the government gave them a hand to get them back on their feet, and they give them some pride; you know, they could own their own land. This was the first time the Cash family ever owned any land or - a lot of these people had never owned any land before. They always sharecropped, they just scraped and got by for the other guy. But this was a new start, a New Deal for them.
HIBBLEN: The Cash family sold the house in 1954, but 15 years later Johnny and his sister Louise walked through it for the documentary, "Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHNNY CASH: THE MAN, HIS WORLD, HIS MUSIC")
LOUISE CASH: Well, it was a big house.
J. CASH: It sure looks smaller, doesn't it?
L. CASH: Yeah.
J. CASH: We moved into this house in the winter of 1935. There were five cans of paint sitting there on the floor, was all it was here. Remember? And every one of us sat down in the middle of the floor and cried.
L. CASH: First new house we'd ever owned.
HIBBLEN: The house passed from family to family for more than half a century until the university bought it and began the restoration last February. The biggest problem was the foundation. It was built on sticky, heavy gumbo soil which would constantly shift, causing the house to become un-level. After lifting the entire structure up and building a new foundation, restorers peeled back layers of wall coverings and linoleum. Hawkins says they found the original wooden walls and tongue and groove flooring still intact.
HAWKINS: Well, I couldn't be more excited, because we want so badly for this to be an authentic restoration. And we've depended a lot on Tommy and Joanne to describe things for us and we hope that we got it right.
HIBBLEN: Once the house reopens, Dyess Mayor Larry Sims says he hopes it will attract even more visitors than those who already find their way to the town after visiting rock and roll landmarks in Memphis, about 45 miles to the east.
SIMS: We get them from Germany and England, France, Vietnam. It's just amazing. We just got through with a busload from Ireland. And, of course, you see, nothing's open yet, but this is their fourth year they came back. And they're keeping up with the progress.
HIBBLEN: One of those visitors was Matt Moler, who today lives in Springfield, Missouri.
MATT MOLER: As a kid, I grew up in South Africa - I was born there. And my dad had an old Johnny Cash cassette tape and I'd listened to that all over Africa. I've listened to it traveling all over the States. He's been a part of my life and his music has ever since I've been a kid. So, it's just been a great opportunity being here today.
HIBBLEN: That's just the reaction the Cash family is hoping for, says Johnny's sister Joanne.
YATES: About a week before Johnny passed away, he said to me, he said, baby, when I'm gone I wonder if anybody will really care? So, I think he'd be real proud.
HIBBLEN: The plans are to open the Cash house to the public as a museum by next September in time to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Johnny Cash's death. For NPR News, I'm Michael Hibblen in Dyess, Arkansas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME OF THE BLUES")
J. CASH: (Singing) Just around the corner, there's heartache, down the street that losers use. If you can wade in through the teardrops, you'll find me at the home of the blues...
WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.