A museum recalling a nautical disaster, Johnny Cash’s newly opened boyhood home, and an Ernest Hemingway residence are within a few hours of each other.
By Lazelle Jones
Northeast Arkansas might fall below some people’s travel radar, but its hidden treasures beg to be discovered. Even those only casually interested in taking a trip back in time may appreciate one or more of these sites.
The area is easily accessible via Interstate 55. We’ll start out to the south and work northward, beginning with a Civil War-related site in Marion. Next, we will visit the boyhood home of “The Man in Black,” music icon Johnny Cash, in Dyess. Continuing north, we’ll see another slice of Arkansas’ rich past in the town of Piggott: the home Ernest Hemingway shared with his second wife for more than a dozen years.
The trip from Marion to Dyess is roughly 40 miles; Dyess to Piggott is approximately 73 miles. Peopled by friendly, down-to-earth folks, this area is a perfect fit for those who like to poke around and who embrace the motorhome lifestyle.
Biggest Boating Disaster In U.S. History
If you do not know about the side-wheel steamboat Sultana, which navigated the Mississippi River between New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Louis, Missouri, during the Civil War, you are not alone. Few are aware that the explosion of the Sultana at a spot just north of Memphis, Tennessee, in late April 1865 is reckoned to have killed more people than the sinking of the Titanic.
Despite the huge loss of human life, the Sultana tragedy was overshadowed by other major events of the time. On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s death and the subsequent manhunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth, filled the newspapers, including headline stories reporting on Booth’s capture and death on April 26.
On April 27, 1865, the Sultana was headed upriver carrying 2,400 passengers, 2,100 of them Union soldiers returning home after the Civil War. Many of the men had just been released from prison camps at Andersonville, Georgia, and Cahaba, Alabama. Following a stop in Memphis to take on fuel, the ship continued its journey north. Just above Memphis, three of its four boilers exploded. Within minutes, the boat had burned to the waterline and 1,800 of those on board perished.
The ill-fated steamboat was built to hold a mere 376 passengers, plus cargo. The boilers, one of which was already in poor shape, were badly overworked as the extreme weight caused the deck to shift this way and that. Why was the Sultana so overloaded? The answer apparently was greed. The riverboat captain was paid to transport the soldiers — $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer — which, it is believed, he shared with a man in charge of filling the boat.
Today the folks in the small Arkansas town of Marion, just minutes north of West Memphis, do a superb job of remembering the young men who gave so much, and who for more than a century and a half have been practically forgotten.
Visiting: The Sultana Disaster Museum has models, photos, maps, and memorabilia related to the disaster. Funds currently are being raised for a larger facility. For now, the museum is at 104 Washington St., Marion, AR 72364; (870) 739-6041. Open Thursday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Sunday, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.; www.sultanadisastermuseum.org.
Johnny Cash Grew Up Here
In 1934, during the Depression, Dyess (pronounced “Dice”) Colony was one of several farming communities created under the U.S. government’s New Deal. Land in eastern Arkansas was purchased by the government and 487 poor farming families each were given 20 to 40 acres of land to clear, plow, and plant. They could work toward owning the property. For them, it was a new beginning.
Dyess Colony encompassed 16,000 acres, land that was covered with scrub, trees, and swamp. A new house was built for each family (three to five rooms, depending upon the size of the family) with no electricity, running water, plumbing, or telephone. They also were provided a barn, a hand-pump well, a chicken coop (or smokehouse), and a one-hole outhouse.
Enter the Cash family — Johnny’s father, Ray; mother, Carrie; and five children, in 1935. Johnny was 3 years old. Two more children were born while the family occupied the house. Johnny spent his childhood there before he graduated from high school in 1950, and then entered the U.S. Air Force.
Dyess Colony had many features of a commune or company town. Residents purchased items at a colony co-op store, and the town had its own hospital, administration building, school, and cotton gin, all configured around Colony Circle. The farm residents were paid in scrip each month, which could be used to purchase services and goods in town.
Today many of the old houses are gone, but the Cash family home was rescued through the efforts of Arkansas State University; Johnny’s family, including daughter Rosanne Cash; and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Money to restore the house has been raised through concerts, with notables such as Willie Nelson anchoring performances at Arkansas State.
The home’s official opening ceremony took place in August 2014. It is furnished as it was during Johnny’s youth, and some items are original to the Cash household. One example is the piano Johnny plunked on while growing up.
Many of the lyrics in Cash’s songs reflect the difficult and dark days America endured during the Great Depression, and more specifically the challenges faced by those living in rural Arkansas. Listen to the words in the song “I’m Busted” or the lyrics to “Five Feet High and Rising,” and in your mind’s eye you can instantly picture the personal experiences and realities of growing up poor in rural Arkansas and those times when the Mississippi rose above flood stage.
Visiting: The Historic Dyess Colony is at 110 Center Drive, Dyess, AR 72330. Visitors see the Dyess Colony Administration Building as well as the Cash home. Inside the Administration Building are exhibits about the colony, its residents, and the impact growing up there had on Johnny Cash. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Visit http://dyesscash.astate.edu or call (870) 764-2274 for more information.
Ernest Hemingway Home
One of the world’s literary greats, Ernest Hemingway nonetheless had difficulties staying put and staying married. For the 13 years he and Pauline Pfeiffer were wed, 1927-1940, they spent part of their time living in Pauline’s father’s home in Piggott, Arkansas. These were prolific years for the author. But just as Pauline had wooed her man away from his first wife while he was a journalist in Europe during World War I, Pauline would lose him to another woman during the late 1930s when he was in Spain covering its civil war.
The white, multistory corner-lot wood frame house still has sweeping verandas that disappear around the corners, just as when Ernest and Pauline were there. The picture-perfect house could be in a movie; it’s that beautiful.
The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center includes the home, where personal artifacts from the couple’s married life line the shelves and tables. But it’s the old horse barn out back, which was converted into a loft studio, where the writer side of Ernest Hemingway is seen. A poker table, whiskey bottles, and a typewriter are on display, and mounted busts of big-game African animals line the walls.
Curators at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum have done an excellent job creating a visual timeline that depicts the years Ernest and Pauline were married. Few would guess that this man spent so much time in rural Arkansas, and that it was where he wrote portions of his 1929 masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms.
Visiting: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center is located at 1021 W. Cherry St., Piggott, AR 72454; (870) 598-3487, http://hemingway.astate.edu. Tours begin on the hour Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tours on Saturday start on the hour from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Your motorhome affords the opportunity to see the little-known corners of America. Use it to its fullest!
Arkansas Dept. of Parks & Tourism
The following may not be a complete list, so check your campground directory or the RV Marketplace, published online at FMCA.com and in the January and June issues of FMC.
Bootheel RV Park and Event Center
2824 E. Outer Road
Portageville, MO 63873
7037 Interstate 55
Marion, AR 72364
(800) 562-3240 – Reservations
(870) 739-4801 – Information
Tom Sawyer’s RV Park, C4262*
1286 S. Eighth St.
West Memphis, AR 72301
*FMCA commercial member