By Charlotte West
DEARFIELD, Colo. — This deserted town on the high plains of Colorado may not look like much these days, but Oliver Toussaint Jackson had a grand vision for it when he founded it in 1910.
Jackson, known as O.T., aimed to create a self-sustaining settlement for African-Americans at a time when it was difficult for black families to buy property in most Denver neighborhoods.
Jackson tried to convince Denver’s black families to join him in Dearfield. He wanted African-Americans to be able to control their own livelihoods, run their own businesses and own their own homes and property.
“I was invited to speak at our Denver church on the importance for our people of getting land before it is too late,” he wrote in a letter in The Southern Workman, a publication of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a private, historically black college where Booker T. Washington was educated.
During its prime in the late 1910s, Dearfield was a flourishing farming community with a few hundred black residents. Today, a single plaque and a few ramshackle buildings are all that are left of Dearfield, but the site of what was Colorado’s most successful black town highlights the role of African-Americans in the West.
Researchers at the University of Northern Colorado are currently working to preserve Dearfield’s hidden history, but face obstacles with financing.
George Junne, professor of Africana studies at the university, has dedicated much of his career to studying Dearfield and other black western towns. He first learned about Dearfield in the late 1980s from a white man who had visited the site with his father as a child to collect bricks from the chimneys of fallen houses.
On a road trip back to Michigan, Junne stopped at the site, where he met a retired police officer who was living in a former filling station. The man told him more about Dearfield’s story, and he was hooked.
“Afterwards I would go out there and look around and go into some of the standing buildings, wondering what I could do,” Junne said. “Later, I found out that the Black American West Museum in Denver was working on preservation and associated with them.”
O.T. JACKSON’S VISION
Jackson was born in Ohio in 1862, and moved to Colorado with his wife, Minerva, in 1887. Over the course of his career, he was a newspaper man, a restaurateur and an entrepreneur. In Colorado, he served as messenger to the governor, which gave him access to political power in the capital. He was also the founder of the Colorado chapter of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League. Inspired by Washington’s 1901 biography “Up From Slavery,” Jackson dreamed of creating a self-sufficient black community in Colorado.
Dearfield had a rough go of it during its first few years. Jackson noted that during the first winter, only two families had wooden houses to shield them from the elements — in particular the bone-chilling wind whipping across the plains.
“Ours is a prairie country and there was no nearby timber,” he wrote. “Buffalo chips and sagebrush were our chief fuel.”
The Dearfield residents banded together to survive.
“We would get together in one or the other of the frame houses and sing all the louder if the wind nearly picked us up and carried us away,” Jackson wrote.
By 1915, the colony had 40 farms and a 140-acre townsite. It’s main avenue was named after Washington, Jackson’s hero. The town eventually boasted a filling station, a dance hall, two churches, a school and a lunch room.
According to archeologist Robert Brunswig, a professor emeritus and research fellow at UNC, there were 300 to 700 residents at the height of the Dearfield colony, including the neighboring black community of Chapelton. The population of the town of Dearfield itself likely never exceeded more than 50 to 75 residents, Brunswig added.
“That number fluctuated as settlers bought farmland or homesteaded property in the colony area and moved their families there or sold land … and moved back out,” said Brunswig, who has taken his students to excavate at the townsite as part of a summer field school.
Junne says that Dearfield served as a model black community. “O.T. Jackson … showed people in the Weld County area that blacks were not the stereotypes seen in popular books and movies.”
“He clearly showed that blacks and whites could exist and even interact together at dances and baseball games, and would even assist each other,” Junne said.
ALL-BLACK SETTLEMENTS OUT WEST
Dearfield was established relatively late compared to most all-black settlements in the West, the majority of which were founded in the late 1870s and ’80s after Reconstruction failed to deliver on its promise of racial equality. The Homestead Act of 1882 offered the chance for black Americans to own land in the West. One example is Nicodemas, Kansas, which was founded in 1877 by “exodusters.” The name came from the “exodus” of black refugees fleeing racism and oppression in the postwar South.
Junne said that Dearfield was one of several attempts to create African-American settlements in Colorado — names such as “The Dry” and “Easyville” appear in early 20th century records. Junne estimates that there were at least 25 black communities in Colorado. There are historic references to black mountain towns following the Gold Strike in 1859. Chapelton competed with Dearfield for residents and services.
“Dearfield was not an aberration,” Junne said.
Jackson tried to recruit black families from Kansas and his home state of Ohio to join him in realizing the Dearfield project.
Settlers in Dearfield had “family and relatives in some of the other black communities such as Nicodemus,” Junne said. “They were in contact with each other, sometimes moving from one colony to another.”
LIFE IN DEARFIELD
Women played a major role in the governance of Dearfield, with Minerva Jackson running the town while O.T. worked out of his office in Denver. Women and children tended the farms, while the men hired themselves out to local white farmers or worked in Denver, coming back to the colony on weekends.
Settlers implemented dry-farming techniques that allowed them to cultivate crops with limited irrigation. Farming in the high desert required tenacity, but part of Dearfield’s success can also be attributed to favorable meteorological conditions during the 1910s. When Jackson filed his desert claim in 1910 to establish the town, Deerfield’s land was valued at $25,000. By 1921, it was valued at over $750,000, livestock over $200,000 and annual farm production of nearly $125,000.
“When it was settled, this part of the country went through one of the best climate periods that we’ve had in a long time,” Brunswig said. “We had a lot more rainfall than we do today and a lot of farming.”
Farmers were able to raise a surplus of “truck garden” crops — vegetables, corn, oats, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, strawberries and cantaloupes — which they were able to ship out and sell in nearby markets such as Denver. World War I also provided a much needed boost to the Dearfield economy as demand for agricultural products led to price surges.
The receding rainfall would ultimately spell the end of Dearfield and other farming communities in the high plains. “Dearfield was lush at the time, because of all the rainfall. Nobody knew that every year the rainfall was receding bit by bit, until it was too late,” Junne said.
According to Brunswig, there were 55 towns in Weld County, including Dearfield, at the beginning of the Great Depression. “They were all small towns, a lot of them were built along the railroads. And almost every one of them just died and blew away during the Depression,” he said.
Despite the colony’s short lifespan, Dearfield was one of the most successful African-American communities in Colorado. “Dearfield was a farming success and a model for black farming communities around the country and was taken down, not by mismanagement or ignorance, but by the dust storms,” Junne said.
THE FALL OF DEARFIELD
Dearfield became another Dust Bowl casualty. By 1930, the black population of the town and colony of Dearfield had dwindled to 25, down well below the town’s peak in 1920.
Jackson continued to promote the Dearfield colony every chance he got, even after the community began to wane.
“Dearfield is the place!” proclaimed a black and white poster from 1931. “Located about 70 miles east of Denver on the Lincoln Highway 38, this little town is the ideal spot for a summer outing. … You can order dinner in advance by phoning Weldona 68-R-5, and it will be ready when you arrive.”
According to an oral history interview with Walker Groves, who lived in Dearfield as a teenager in the late 1930s, Jackson had plans to rebuild Dearfield well into the ’40s. Groves’ father worked for Jackson until his death in a farming accident.
“Dearfield, that was his conversation from morning until night,” Groves said of Jackson. “He witnessed before what had happened and … in his mind that it could happen again.”
He said that Jackson wanted Groves Sr. to build hunters’ cabins and pleaded with his stepmother to reopen the restaurant in an attempt to revive the community.
Less than a decade after the majority of Dearfield’s residents had relocated to Denver, scant evidence of the town remained. As a teenager, Groves and his brother roamed the fields surrounding the townsite.
“We walked the fields from one end to the other,” Groves said. “I never did find a stick, a hole in the ground, or blocks to prove to me that somebody had lived there. No fences, no posts, wood or metal.”
He said that Jackson had reminisced to Groves Sr. about what Dearfield was like at its peak. “I said they all must have gone to heaven and took everything with them,” Groves joked.
Jackson died in 1948. His niece Jennie who moved to Dearfield in 1943 to care for her ailing uncle inherited his property. She was Dearfield’s last permanent resident until she died in 1973.
PRESERVING HISTORY IN DEARFIELD
The last pioneer resident of the townsite was Squire Brockman, its blacksmith, machine mechanic and fiddler, who lived at Dearfield until his death in 1951, surviving O.T. Jackson by three years. Brockman’s house remains and the blacksmith’s shop where he worked will be the focus of archaeological investigations beginning this summer.
“There weren’t many records left when everything just kind of faded away,” Brunswig says. “We’ve been trying to reconstruct what the colony looked like, what the town site looked like, what the people did and everything … Now we’re beginning to be able to tell some of the stories that go back over a hundred years now.”
As an archeologist, Brunswig is particularly excited about outhouses, where he can find artifacts like medicine bottles and other trash that people threw into the toilet. “There’s a privy that I’d love to get my hands on,” he said. “People spent a lot of time out there and things just fell out of your pockets. It’s OK though, things are pretty sanitized after all these years.”
The best preserved building on the townsite is the Jackson house, which began its existence as the Dearfield Lodge. In 2001, the Colorado legislature appropriated $250,000 to preserve the building by reinforcing the roof and moving it off a crumbling foundation. The building, and much of the land of the former colony, are owned by the Black American West Museum in Denver.
Other remnants of Dearfield have not fared as well. According to Junne and Brunswig, the remaining structures have deteriorated significantly in the last 20 years due to exposure. The former filling station, while still structurally sound, is littered with debris and graffiti (still visible, however, are stamps bearing O.T. Jackson’s name on the timber that was used to construct the gas station). The blacksmith shop will soon be blocked off by a chain link fence in an effort to keep would-be intruders out. With walls and ceilings collapsing into themselves, they pose a potential safety hazard.
Brunswig and Junne, who are both members of a local committee interested in restoring the town, said that money is the biggest obstacle to preserving Dearfield. “We work with the museum in trying to preserve the town site. We’ve now developed a long-term plan to rehabilitate the whole town site, fix these buildings up … and make them more secure,” Brunswig said.
Junne added that someday they might install a small museum in the Jackson house where they could also store equipment for excavation. They have also considered developing a virtual self-guided tour that would allow people to wander around the site and learn about Dearfield’s somewhat unknown legacy.
The cross-disciplinary collaboration between Brunswig and Junne has led to new insights about the town. In 1995, the Black American West Museum successfully nominated Dearfield to the National Register of Historic Places based partly on what the nominating team believed to be the foundation of the colony school. After Brunswig started investigating, they discovered that the foundation was a raised garden built long after the town’s heyday, designed to capture moisture where they grew vegetables for the lunch room in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
“With the archeology, we’re correcting some of the history,” Junne said.
Unearthing Dearfield’s history adds nuance to the role of African-Americans in Colorado. “People need to know and respect the contributions that all people have made in Colorado and the West,” Junne says.
HOW TO GET THERE
Today, a few buildings of historic Dearfield can be seen just south of U.S. Highway 34 and 25 miles east of Greeley, Colorado. The townsite is marked by a granite monument dedicated in 2010, the 100th anniversary of the town’s founding.