The Kingsland Connection

The area around Kingsland in Cleveland County was a desperately poor part of Arkansas in February 1932 when JR Cash was born to Ray and Carrie Cash.

The Great Depression began in 1929, making the already cash-strapped state even poorer. Cotton fueled Arkansas’ economy, and the great drought of 1930-31 decimated crops and left thousands bankrupt. Hunger was not uncommon in these pine forests.

Almost two decades earlier (in September 1913, to be exact), Paul William Bryant had been born near farmer William Monroe Bryant and housewife Dora Ida Kilgore Bryant. Paul was the eighth child of nine survivors. Three other children died at birth. Their home was at the end of Moro Creek, and the Bryants lived in even greater poverty than the Cash family.

Due to his father’s poor health and the lack of food in the house, Paul often lived with his grandfather WL Kilgore in Fordyce. It was at Fordyce that he entered a contest at a downtown theater that promised a dollar to anyone who wrestled a bear. It was then that people started calling the teenager Bear Bryant.

Bryant discovered football at Fordyce. In 1926 he played in the first game he ever saw. He had crampons screwed into the only pair of shoes he owned and wore them everywhere. Bryant played on an undefeated Redbug team in 1930 which was declared state champion by the Little Rock newspapers.

In 1931, University of Alabama assistant football coach Hank Crisp came to Fordyce to try and recruit two players – the Jordan twins – who instead chose to go to the University of Arkansas. . He left with Bryant.

By the time JR Cash was born in 1932, Bryant was a local hero and lived in Tuscaloosa. In the fall of 1933, the first year of the Southeastern Conference, he assisted the Crimson Tide in the initial SEC Championship.

Cleveland County was called Dorsey County when it was established by the Arkansas Legislature in 1873. The railroad that would become known as the Cotton Belt was built across the county in 1882. This led to the growth of the lumber industry as it became much easier to ship on virgin lumber. About 75 people lived near a train station when Austin Gresham requested a post office in December 1882.

“His first name chosen for the post office, Arkatha, was refused by postal officials,” writes Steve Teske for the Arkansas Encyclopedia of the Central Arkansas Library System. “It was also his second choice, Cohassett. Kingsland was his third choice, and it was approved in June 1883. The town was incorporated in 1884. At the time, it contained three steam-powered sawmills, a planer mill. , several shops, two hotels, a pharmacist, a stable and a blacksmith.

“A Methodist Church was founded in 1884, followed by two Baptist churches the following year. The first school classes met in the Methodist Church in 1889. Kingsland then had nine sawmills … The Cleveland County Bank has opened in Kingsland in 1899, and a brickyard was erected in 1900. “

The timber industry suffered alongside the cotton sector during the Great Depression. In 1933, the Cash family were chosen to move to a New Deal resettlement colony for impoverished farmers known as Dyess. It was during this government project in distant Mississippi County that the young JR was introduced to the guitar by his mother and to music by the Church of God. He first sang on the radio at KLCN-AM in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School.

It was one of those accidents in history that two iconic figures of 20th century American popular culture – sports coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Johnny Cash in the music industry – were born a few miles apart in South Arkansas. That day, I sat with Wayne Cash (a distant cousin of Johnny Cash) in the building that once housed Kingsland High School.

Wayne, who lives in Woodlawn, has long been involved with the Cleveland County Historical Association. He loves what Arkansas State University has done to restore Johnny Cash’s childhood home and parts of the former Dyess Settlement in Northeast Arkansas, but he wants to promote the connection with Kingsland. And it just has the facility: a relatively new school building that will become Kingsland Heritage Center.

Edinburgh’s new school district was consolidated into Kingsland School District in 1985. A 1940s school building in Kingsland was destroyed by fire in 2003. The new facility opened in 2005. A November decision The 2002 Arkansas Supreme Court which declared the state’s system for unconstitutional funding of public schools led to widespread consolidation for the remainder of the decade. The Kingsland School District was consolidated with Rison. Kingsland High School held its last classes in the spring of 2005.

Southeast Arkansas College, a two-year school based in Pine Bluff, uses part of the building as a satellite campus. A Head Start program for children is located in another part of the building. Still, there is plenty of room to make Wayne Cash’s dream come true.

“We’ve been working on this for years,” he says.

The John R. Cash Revocable Trust worked with Southeast Arkansas College on an agreement to use part of the building. Memories will be kept there and students will be used for tasks such as creating a website. Wayne hopes the Kingsland site will focus on the history of the Cash family in Cleveland County as well as Johnny Cash’s many visits there.

A six-panel exhibit commissioned by the Arkansas Humanities Council for a traveling exhibit is already installed. AHC donated the panel in 2017. And, yes, school trophy cases still celebrate Bear Bryant.

According to an extensive master plan developed for the Kingsland Heritage Center: “The center will include on-site staff, parking, an impressive indoor and outdoor exhibit, as well as a regular program of historical films, storytelling events, concerts and of festivals. . .. The KHC will feature influences from Johnny Cash’s musical storytelling, his more than 50 performances across Arkansas and the impacts on Arkansas and its culture.

“To anchor Kingsland and Arkansas concert history with a broad interpretation and celebration of Johnny Cash’s impact on the global music industry, the KHC will partner with John R. Cash Revocable Trust, the Interpretation site of Childhood Cash in Dyess and the Cash Museum in Nashville. “

Ken Hubbell, a Little Rock-based consultant, and famed Little Rock architect Ed Levy are involved in the planning. Levy focuses on the design concepts for the center while Hubbell develops the content.

Johnny Cash’s first concert in Arkansas was on August 3, 1955 at the Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock with another named Elvis Presley. His last concert in Arkansas was on June 13, 1996 at the Wildwood Park for the Arts in Little Rock. Cash died in September 2003.

According to Josh Matas of Sandbox Management, who represents the John R. Cash Revocable Trust: “The Kingsland Heritage Center will continue the commitment of the Cash family, as well as the trust, to recognize critical Cash locations in the State of Arkansas. . Johnny Cash continues to thrive through the lens of popular culture. “

Cash has been featured throughout country music documentary maker Ken Burns’ series and was the subject of a YouTube documentary titled “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash.” The video, released last year, has been viewed over 2.5 million times.

“Fans continue to identify with Cash, given his unwavering commitment to individuality and authenticity,” said Matas.

Wayne Cash believes Johnny Cash fans will find their way to Kingsland. He oversaw the placement of markers throughout the county and is developing a Johnny Cash driving tour.

It looks like those who visit Dyess in the flat fields of northeast Arkansas will soon have a complementary attraction in the pine woods of what people in the southern half of the state call Lower Arkansas.

Rex Nelson is editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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