Finding Americana in Arkansas

One of the American South's 'lesser known' states offers a host of authentic experiences and plenty of surprises, discovers Steve Hartridge

The bumpy gravel road is unerringly straight and divides two fields that gave up their crops a few weeks earlier.

A ball of white fluff, a stray from the annual cotton harvest, skips down it before tumbling into a pool of water that has gathered in the adjacent soil.

Ominous looking ebony clouds are rolling in, but the now monochrome afternoon seems fitting for my visit to the home of one of the USA’s true musical legends.

Arkansas cash
Arkansas cotton

For Johnny Cash was known as the ‘Man in Black’ and his restored childhood home stands alone among cotton fields in the small northeastern Arkansas town of Dyess, in the region of the state known as the Mississippi Delta River.

The one-level home is set up as it was when Johnny lived there with his family in the 1940s, but this solitary modest structure hints at a bigger story: it’s one of the few surviving buildings that were once part of a grand experiment, a key plank of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that between 1933 and 1938 created a huge range of public works projects designed to create jobs to get the country’s labour force moving again after the ravages of the Great Depression.

The Dyess Colony was an ambitious project: starting in 1934, eventually 500 homes were built to establish a permanent community of independent farmers, a pioneering effort designed to drag the rural population out of desperate poverty.

Johnny Cash lived there, during the day working in his father’s cotton fields and in the evening singing hymns on the porch while his mother played the piano.

That very piano is now displayed in the house and during our two-hour tour we hear the full story of both the Cash family and the Dyess community.

A musical legend, a snapshot of U.S. history, cotton, a harsh rural landscape – it is all here in a tiny corner of Arkansas, a microcosm of the American South; a slice of true Americana.

The Waltons

Arkansas calls itself ‘The Natural State’, a nod to its many scenic highlights – think rolling hills, the Ozark mountains, rivers, caves, forests and even hot springs. But the ‘Surprise State’ would be an equally apt epithet as a visit throws up ‘living history’ aplenty and many ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was in Arkansas’ moments.

Take the sister towns of Rogers and Bentonville, in the state’s northwest corner, two small towns with a big-town vibe that both claim to be the home of Walmart, the USA’s largest retailer.

Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers in 1962, but he conceived the idea for a giant discount store in nearby Bentonville and opened Walton’s ‘5&10’ – or ‘nickel and dime store’ – on its downtown square a dozen years earlier.

That original Walton’s 5&10 is now home to a Walmart Museum, which has its original floor tiles as well as toys, candy and books straight out of the old days. It’s currently undergoing a restoration and will open again later in 2024. For now there’s a temporary exhibit nearby that includes a somewhat unnerving hologram of Sam Walton, who offers sound bites on Walmart’s history, corporate philosophy and bid for world domination (there are now 11,000-plus Walmart stores worldwide).

The Walmart influence also extends to one of Arkansas’ best-known attractions, the world-class Crystal Bridges, a museum of American art created by philanthropist Alice Walton that is set among acres of Ozark forest. The building and grounds are eye-catching and include forest trails, sculpture gardens and waterside pavilions.

Rogers, Fort Smith, Fayetteville

More shades of Americana are found in Rogers, an old ‘railway town’ where many of the store fronts in the charming downtown area are registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

But this is no sleepy forgotten backwater: an estimated 40 people are moving there a day for the town’s research, high-tech and business sectors.

It is also attracting entrepreneurs like John Allen, owner of the Onyx Coffee Shop that is housed in a historic ex- warehouse. Describing himself as a “purveyor of high-end coffee”, John tells us that Onyx is the country’s “most awarded coffee roaster”.

“We source our beans from 800 sustainable growers and are the only 100% full transparency company. We’re proud of that, and so is Rogers,” he says.

Arkansas daisy
Arkansas rogers

I walk a few blocks to the Daisy Airgun Museum, which tells the story of the BB air rifle that our guide tells me is “everyone’s favourite first gun”. Back in the day the toy firearm that fires small metal balls and is the scourge of small birds everywhere was so popular it spawned its own phrase: ‘It’s a Daisy!” – meaning “that’s really cool”.

Arkansas high

In Little Rock, the state capital, I visit the impressive Clinton Presidential Library and join a guided tour of Little Rock High School, the scene of a major confrontation in the struggle for civil rights in the late-1950s when a handful of black school kids defied threats and violence to take their places in a previously all-white school.

In Fayetteville, next to the University of Arkansas, we visit the first home of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who in 1975 got married in the small front room.

In Fort Smith, at the new U.S. Marshals Museum I learn the story of how in the mid-19th century the law enforcement agency started out by chasing the bad guys of the Wild West into dangerous Indian Territory – and arrested and returned fugitive slaves to their masters until 1861 – and how today they apprehend terrorists, criminals and take custody of federal prisoners. The building, shaped like the star on a U.S. Marshal’s badge, has fun interactive exhibits and memorabilia from various eras.

Johnny Cash, Walmart, Bill Clinton, the BB Gun, Civil Rights, U.S. Marshals – it doesn’t get more Americana than this.

Arkansas? It’s a daisy!