Dearfield, CO – a colony for African Americans

Dearfield is a ghost town and a historically black majority settlement in Weld County, Colorado, United States. It is 30 miles (48 km) east of Greeley. The town was formed by Oliver Toussaint Jackson, who desired to create a colony for African Americans. In 1910, Jackson, a successful businessman from Boulder, filed on the homestead that later became the town and began to advertise for “colonists.” The name Dearfield was suggested by one of the town’s citizens, Dr. J.H.P. Westbrook, who was from Denver. The word dear was chosen as the foundation for the town’s name due to the precious value of the land and community to the town’s settlers.

The first settlers of Dearfield had great difficulty farming the surrounding pasture and endured several harsh seasons. By 1920, the town had 200 to 300 residents, two churches, a school and restaurant. In 1921, the town’s net worth was appraised at $1,075,000.

After the prosperous years of the 1920s, the Great Depression arrived and the town’s agricultural success significantly declined. Settlers began to leave Dearfield in order to find better opportunities. By 1940, the town population had decreased to 12. Jackson desperately attempted to spur interest in the town, even offering it for sale. However, there was little interest in Dearfield. Jackson died on February 18, 1948.

A few deserted buildings remain in Dearfield: a gas station, a diner, and the founder’s home. In 1995, the town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1998, Black American West Museum in Denver began to make attempts to preserve the town’s site. It is a Colorado Registered Historic Landmark. A 2010 monument next to one of the remaining buildings contains information about the history of the site.

A 2001 state historical marker  at U.S. Route 85 mile marker 264 near Evans, Colorado, includes a panel with the history of Dearfield.

Colorado entrepreneur and messenger for three governors, Mr. O. T. (Oliver Toussaint) Jackson filed a desert claim to create the African-American agricultural colony of Dearfield in May 1910. Dr. Joseph H. P. Westbrook, a Denver physician, proclaimed at an organizational meeting in 1909 that the fields “will be very dear to us,” thus giving Dearfield its name.

The first settlers came in 1911, and by 1920, the successful community of Dearfield had a population of between 200 to 300 residents, two churches, a school and restaurant, plus plans to build a canning factory and a college. Dearfield’s dreams turned to dust in the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the town never recovered. By 1946, Dearfield had a population of 1. Today Dearfield remains a symbol of Western pride and empowerment for many African Americans.

THE STORY OF DEARFIELD COLORADO

(taken with permission from a presentation created by Robert Brunswig)

“Get a home of your own. Get some property….get some of the substance for yourself.”
— Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington’s advice, coinciding with an African-American “back to the land” movement at the turn of the 20th Century, inspired O.T. Jackson to invest his own money to buy land for a black colony located on Highway 34, ninety miles north of Denver.

Jackson established Dearfield as a self-sufficient all-black agricultural colony.

In 1910, Dearfield’s first seven homesteaders established land claims, initially living in tents and dugouts.

The colony’s first recruit was an elderly man and friend of Jackson, J.M. Thomas. On August 20th, 1910, James Smith and J.M. Thomas of Denver planted 100 acres of winter wheat.

In 1911, the first full year of settlement, seven families moved to Dearfield, surviving that year’s severe winter together in only two frame houses. By 1915, the town’s population had grown to include 27 families, 44 wood cabins, a concrete block factory, dance pavilion, lodge, restaurant, grocery store, and a boarding house.

Settlers dry-farmed corn, oats, barley, alfalfa, hay, potatoes, Mexican beans, sugar beets, cantaloupes, strawberries, and a wide variety of truck garden products.
They also raised cattle, horses, hogs, turkeys, geese, ducks, and chickens.
Some farmers went beyond subsistence farming and grew crops for the Kuner’s factory, the Beatrice Creamery, and the Green Brothers Fruit and Produce Company in Denver.

In 1920, Dearfield farmers produced the colony’s largest crop, one third more than in the previous year.

By 1921, sixty to seventy families lived in Dearfield. Its net worth that year was appraised at $1,075,000.

In 1921, fifteen thousand of the community’s 20,000 total farm acres were under cultivation and the growing town added two churches and a gas station.

Many Dearfield colonists came from Denver, others from as far away as Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Virginia.

Aside from farming, people worked in retail businesses and truck gardening. Hosting week-end dances for visitors from Denver were important social occasions and a source of revenue for Dearfield community members.

Many people from Denver’s African-American community would travel to Dearfield on those week-ends by car and by train, there being a train station only a mile and a half away at another nearby small community.

Advertisements of Dearfield’s entertainment offerings were placed throughout Denver’s Historic Five Points neighborhood and many of its residents traveled to Dearfield on weekends for great food, fun, and dances at its Barn Pavilion.

Many Dearfield residents worked in Denver during weekdays and farmed their homesteads on weekends.

This meant that much of the responsibility for farming fell on the men’s families during the week-days when they were employed in Denver.

Women and children ‘s contributions in vegetable gardening were a particularly significant source of both household food supplies and a source of outside income during the summer months.

Inflated food prices of World War I fell suddenly when the war ended and over 400,000 U.S. farmers lost their land.

In Dearfield, those who lived through the 1920s suffered economic downturns as their soil dried up and blew away in the hot, dry winds of the Dust Bowl.

Jackson’s dreams turned to dust as Dearfield and many other eastern Colorado farming communities suffered economic downturns beyond their control.Dearfield residents drifted away to find better opportunities and, by 1940, the town’s population had decreased to twelve, only two percent of the town’s highest (1921) population.

O.T. Jackson desperately attempted to revive interest, even offering Dearfield for sale, but there were no takers.

Jackson lived on at Dearfield until his death on February 18th, 1948.

Today, little evidence remains of the tenacious individuals who brought life to Dearfield.

In 1995, Dearfield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1999, Colorado Preservation, Inc. (CPI) listed Dearfield as an endangered site.

The Preservation of Dearfield

The Black American West Museum, with other community and university partners, is actively working to preserve Dearfield’s heritage by stabilizing existing structures and documenting its past. An archaeological research program is planned, starting in 2011.

With care and support, Dearfield’s past can be preserved for future generations and, hopefully, may become a popular as well as an important learning experience for
Colorado school students about the state’s rich social and cultural heritage.

With stabilization of existing buildings and new research, future creation of a historic park and museum is envisioned in Dearfield’s future.

In 2002, the Black American West Museum joined Colorado Preservation Inc. and Colorado State University’s Architectural Preservation Institute in stabilizing Jackson’s home, and in 2004, the Black American West Museum acquired much of the original town site.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating post, historical origins, of this unique community explained in a factual and coherent narrative.

    Like so many of these eclectic posts from Michael, they delve into unusual and little known matters.

    It is as if the author has taken up residence in the Smithsonian Institute and used the vast knowledge stored their to provide readers with a galaxy of subjects researched and presented in a digestible narrative.

    Thank you once again !
    Brian ( Lynton Devon. u.k.)

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