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When Friday rolled around back in the 1910s, many of Denver’s Black residents didn’t stick around. They boarded a train and headed roughly 70 miles northeast of the Mile High City to one of Colorado’s hottest weekend escape destinations: Dearfield.
Upon arrival to the all-Black settlement, visitors checked into a hotel or bunked in another family’s home, then headed to the dance hall, where blacksmith Squire Brockman moonlighted as a fiddler, accompanied by his mandolin-playing brother-in-law. Guests spent the weekend fishing in the South Platte River, hunting, or attending rodeos and more dances. Come Sunday, they boarded the train back to Denver, ready to start another workweek.
Dearfield, however, was a lot more than a great place to party. It was Colorado’s only all-Black, self-sufficient agricultural colony and one man’s passion project. “Dearfield’s founder saw it as a real dream for African Americans,” says Robert Brunswig, professor emeritus of anthropology at University of Northern Colorado and Dearfield scholar. “They were establishing a place where they could develop their own future.” Today, it’s a ghost town 30 miles east of Greeley and a National Historic District brimming with stories that researchers are eager to uncover.
Sixteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in 1863, a mass migration of African Americans, called the Exodusters, left the South for Kansas. Driven partially by calls from Black intellectual Booker T Washington, who controversially argued that owning property and making a living was the best way to secure freedom, many of these families moved west, hoping to buy land. In some cases, they formed all-Black homesteading communities in the West and Midwest.
It was during this climate that Oliver Toussaint Jackson grew up. Born in 1862, he was raised in Ohio by parents who’d been enslaved themselves. Jackson, with his knack for entrepreneurship, moved to Denver in 1887. He opened several restaurants on the Front Range, as well as a resort farm called Valmont near Boulder, according to History Colorado podcast Lost Highways. As an entertaining space, it did well until Boulder banned liquor in 1907, ending the boozy parties hosted there and forcing Jackson to sell.
The sale wasn’t the end of Jackson’s big ideas. Inspired by Washington, Jackson became determined to create an agricultural settlement for African Americans. His political work put him in an advantageous position to make it happen. He campaigned for Democratic politicians and earned a job as Colorado governor John Shafroth’s messenger—giving Jackson access to multiple politician’s offices and ears.
A National Experiment
Dearfield officially started in 1910, when, under the enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, Jackson purchased 320 acres in the Platte River Valley with his own money. The land was far from ideal, says Brunswig. It sat on an expanse of sand dunes, which meant it desperately needed water in order to be fertile, and the water rights from the nearby Empire Reservoir had already been bought up.
Seven families moved to Dearfield initially, and survived a brutal winter in two lean-tos, as well as tents, dugouts, and caves, according to the work of George Junne, professor of Africana studies at University of Northern Colorado.
But the early settlers got lucky. “When Dearfield was founded, rainfall was 50 percent or so higher than it is today,” Brunswig says. Along with the blessing of an unusual wet season, the U.S. would soon get involved with WWI, driving up demand for many of Dearfield’s crops, like corn, barley, and potatoes. As money came in, so did more settlers, many attracted by Jackson’s relentless advertising in Denver and beyond.
Jackson’s pull with the government came in handy, too. He convinced Governor Shafroth to encourage the Department of Agriculture to give Dearfield seeds to plant. When a branch of a highway was built near Dearfield, the settlement was the site of celebration—the governor and several senators attended the festivities, which involved biplanes flying overhead, in 1912. “It raised Dearfield’s profile,” Brunswig says (today, the highway is called U.S. Route 24).
Despite these benefits, homesteading was still incredibly difficult work. To make ends meet, men often worked in Denver, or as laborers for neighboring farmers, which included German-Americans and Hispanic settlers. Those families, in turn, often joined the citizens of Dearfield for dances. “I wouldn’t say it was a paradise of ethnic relations,” Brunswig says. “But it was probably as good as you could get at the time.”
Because so many men worked elsewhere, it often fell to the women of Dearfield to farm and keep the town running. Jackson himself spent 90 percent of his time away from Dearfield, working as the governor’s messenger and promoting the town. It was his wife, a teacher named Minerva, who took charge—she was known as the unofficial mayor of Dearfield. (As far as researchers can tell, Brunswig says, there was no official town government.)
By 1915, according to Junne, 27 families lived in Dearfield; the town boasted a concrete block factory, dance pavilion, lodge, restaurant, grocery store, and boarding house. Dearfield even fielded a baseball team, which played against other teams in Weld County. The settlement continued to gain notoriety: At its height, according to Brunswig, people from 37 states eventually contributed to the settlement’s population of roughly 700.
After nearly more than a decade of success—in 1921, Dearfield’s net worth was appraised at $1,075,000—the hard times that befell the rest of the country also hit Dearfield. The end of WWI greatly reduced the profitability of the farmers in the community, a misfortune sharpened by the Great Depression. Finally, the early string of rainy seasons gave way to the Dust Bowl, and without an irrigation system, the sandy soil simply could not produce enough crops.
Families began leaving in search of more stable incomes, and by 1940, only 12 people remained. Jackson tried several times to rebuild Dearfield—even offering it as the site of a prisoner of war camp—but was never successful. He continued working as a messenger for many years, and remained in Dearfield until his death in 1948.
The site of Dearfield was neglected for years, says Brunswig, until the Black American West Museum took interest, obtaining a grant to have it studied by Colorado State University in the 1970s. Dearfield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, and the museum began trying to restore the remaining buildings in the ghost town in 1998.
Those efforts have intensified—Brunswig and Junne are working with the Black American West Museum to install fences protecting the two remaining buildings from trespassers. One, a hotel, had several rooms that served as Jackson’s home. A filling station near the town’s entrance also still stands. (A third building, Squire Brockman’s smithery, unfortunately collapsed during the derecho that passed through Colorado several weeks ago.)
Brunswig is also part of a team excavating certain plots in Dearfield, including Brockman’s home. They’ve located household items, such as plates, that help researchers better understand what life was like when Dearfield was in it’s prime. Plans are still in their infancy, but someday, Coloradans may be able to wander the grounds of the historic site and learn how some ancestors of formerly enslaved individuals joined together in the quest for self-reliance and prosperity.