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Living on Keiser time

Each year, the 11-member board of the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council meets to decide how to spend the money that comes from the state’s real estate transfer tax.

The program has been a good one for the state ever since the council was created by the Legislature in 1987. Grants are used to maintain and enhance state-owned natural areas, historic sites and outdoor attractions. It’s funding that might not come otherwise for such facilities in an era of tight state budgets.

During a meeting earlier this month, the commission awarded grants for everything from improvements to the Garvan Woodland Gardens at Hot Springs to the planned Trout Nature Center at Mountain Home to the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s Poison Springs State Forest in Nevada and Ouachita counties.

One particular grant caught my eye. Arkansas State University will receive $337,888 for restoration work at the site of the Dyess Colony in Mississippi County.

I’ve long believed we’ve not done nearly enough as a state to promote the history of this resettlement colony for impoverished farmers. We should cash in on the fact that Johnny Cash lived there as a boy. The folks at Arkansas State and a group of dedicated volunteers are out to correct that oversight.

“While the Roaring ’20s had a euphoric effect on much of the nation, the agricultural economy of Arkansas did not share in the prosperity,” Nancy Hendricks writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “By the end of the 1920s, one disaster after another devastated the small independent farmers of the state. The flood of 1927 was followed by drought. The stock market crash of 1929 was followed by bank failure. By the end of 1930, approximately two-thirds of Arkansas’ independent farmers lost their farms and fell into tenancy.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and established the Works Progress Administration as one of a bevy of agencies designed to fight the Great Depression. The first WPA administrator for Arkansas was William Reynolds Dyess, who was part of a group of politically powerful plantation owners from Mississippi County. He made a suggestion to the Roosevelt administration: Have the Federal Emergency Relief Administration purchase 16,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods in Mississippi County. Pump $3 million of federal money into the area so families could move there and clear about 20 acres each for cultivation.

The resettlement colony was established in May 1934. Federal officials searched the state’s relief rolls and then brought almost 1,300 men to Mississippi County to begin building roads and homes.

“The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out in the middle,” Hendricks writes. “The roads leading out were simply numbered rather than named, as in Road 14. The men dug ditches to drain the land, and they built 500 small farmhouses. Each house had five rooms with an adjacent barn, privy and chicken coop. The houses were whitewashed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a dining room, plus a front and back porch. Apart from these improvements to the land, the colonists were expected to do the rest themselves. Like all New Deal housing projects, it was intended for white people only.”

As the houses were finished, interviewers fanned out across the state to begin the application process. The first of about 500 families arrived in the fall of 1934 and began clearing the land in order to plant corn and cotton. In early 1936, a month after Dyess was killed in an airplane crash, what had been known as Colonization Project No. 1 officially became the Dyess Colony. The national media focused on the unique project and the nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, paid a visit in June 1936.

By then, there were almost 2,500 residents. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash headed one of the five families selected to move to Dyess Colony from Cleveland County in 1936. Their son John was identified as “J.R.” in the Dyess High School yearbook when he graduated as the class vice president in 1950.

Dyess was incorporated in 1964. Each summer, a reunion is held for former residents of the resettlement colony and their descendants. Cash’s song “Five Feet High And Rising” is based on a January 1937 flood that forced the colony to be evacuated.

In his song “Dyess, Arkansas,” Buddy Jewell sings: “I know there’s bigger cities, but there ain’t no better town.”

I’m fascinated by Mississippi County and its plantation culture. Situated in a corner of the state, it’s in many ways a place apart.

I have a friend with Mississippi County roots. He had family members who once lived at Keiser and would refer to “living on Keiser time,” reinforcing that notion of a place that’s different from the rest of Arkansas.

You’ve heard of company towns, right? Well, in some respects, Mississippi County was a “company county” thanks to Robert Edward Lee Wilson, who built what at one time was considered the largest cotton plantation in the South at 65,000 acres.

The man who later would be known as “Boss Lee” had been born in 1865 on a 2,300-acre plantation that his father carved from the swamps of Mississipppi County. Wilson’s father died in 1870, leaving his young son 400 acres. Wilson lived with his mother in Memphis while a brother-in-law served as guardian of the property. Wilson went to court in 1882 to be declared “of age” so he could manage the property. He married Elizabeth Beall in December 1884 and began to build in empire after going into partnership with his father-in-law, Socrates Beall, and creating the Wilson & Beall Lumber Co.

Valuable lumber was shipped out by rail to St. Louis and Chicago. The land left behind then was drained and placed into agricultural production. Wilson incorporated Lee Wilson & Co. in 1904.

“He appointed managers of his various units and required them to report to the head office located at Wilson,” University of Arkansas historian Jeannie Whayne has written. “He founded several towns. He established a bank in 1908, which opened new credit and capital opportunities to him and helped sustain his enterprises through a series of challenges including floods, droughts and the Great Depression.”

Wilson died in September 1933. But the company still remains in the family. It’s one of the top agri-business operations in the region.

According to an article in the Special Collections section of the University of Arkansas library, Boss Lee had done things differently from the start.

“Most lumbering companies sold their freshly cut timberlands,” the article states. “Not Boss Lee. He chose to clear and drain his properties. Over many centuries, constant floods had laid down some of the richest alluvial soil in the world. It was in these deep black, rich lands that Wilson began to plant cotton. The arrival of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railway proved to be a tremendous boon to Lee Wilson & Co., allowing them to market their timber more quickly and far more cheaply than before.

“The early years of the company demonstrate the tenuous nature of agriculture in the Delta counties. Breaks in the levee caused tremendous April floods in 1912 and 1913. Yet Wilson’s tenacity was unmatched. He built several small railroads to facilitate the transportation of goods and timber. Wilson’s first line spanned the distance from Wilson to Marie, to Keiser and on to Victoria. Later the company bought the Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern Railway, running from Jonesboro to Lake City. A spur route, branching off at Dell, ran down to Wilson.”

The massive timber operations and the draining of the swampy areas made Mississippi County the state’s most heavily agricultural county. At one time, it grew more cotton than any county in the country.

The Special Collections narrative goes on to state that Wilson “played crucial roles in the organization of the county’s drainage districts despite serious and often dangerous opposition of many of the county’s tax-weary, cash-strapped landowners, men who did not see the long-term economic advantages of drainage.”

The next time you’re headed up Interstate 55 toward St. Louis, take the Wilson exit and spend some time in this fascinating small town. The Wilson family made sure the downtown commercial district was constructed in the Tudor style (R.E.L. Wilson Jr. and his wife got the idea on a wedding trip to England) and that its streets were lined with cottonwood trees. The Wilson family wanted this to be a model town that would attract favorable national attention.

Among other benefits, residents of Wilson had access to health care from company doctors in the 1930s at a time when most rural Arkansans never saw a doctor. Lawn maintenance was included in the rental price for homes.

Indeed, Mississippi County stands apart from other counties with its unique history and culture.

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