Over two decades in the early 20th century, Dearfield, Colorado, went from being one of the most successful Black homestead sites in American history to a shattered dream and deserted settlement. Now, the ghost town might be getting a second chance at life.
The 1910 homestead site, located 80 miles northeast of Boulder in Weld County, went through many highs and lows in its short history. After years of soaring praise in Black newspapers across America, weather changes in the area led to crop failure and the homestead’s eventual abandonment. After decades of research and calls for preservation starting in the 1980s, new and significant progress is happening to restore the one-of-a-kind Colorado site and raise awareness about its history—efforts that were commended at the 2022 Dana Crawford and State Honor Awards ceremony on June 9, hosted by Colorado Preservation, Inc (CPI), a nonprofit that promotes awareness, education and technical services to threatened sites such as Dearfield.
The story of Dearfield is a story of perseverance—of how the Black community navigated a difficult time in American history, with World War I on the horizon and the KKK on the rise—and of how Coloradans today refuse to allow history to be erased.
Despite Dearfield’s tragic end, it serves as an important source of Black history and pride.
Dr. George Junne, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) and a leader in Dearfield’s preservation movement, says, “Many people—no matter if they’re Black, white, Latino, Asian American, whatever—have no idea that Black people built their own towns, their own communities, and [that] many of them were successful. Black people were determined, in spite of everything, to own their own farms, to own their own houses, to take care of themselves, to have their own governments in their communities, their own churches and so forth, and to do for themselves.”
The National Park Service survey
In a letter dated May 11, 2022, the Department of Interior (DOI)—which houses the National Parks Service (NPS)—agreed to conduct a reconnaissance survey to “determine whether the Dearfield Homestead site merits further consideration as a potential unit of NPS.” The letter did not include a date or timeline for the study, but stated it likely would not begin until 2023.
Reconnaissance surveys evaluate whether a site fits four criteria for “national significance,” as outlined by NPS. It must be “an outstanding example of a particular type of resource”; possess “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the natural or cultural themes of our Nation’s heritage”; offer “superlative opportunities for recreation for public use and enjoyment, or for scientific study”; and retain “a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled example of the resource.”
The survey request comes as part of reps. Ken Buck (R-CD 4) and Joe Neguse’s (D-CD 2) bipartisan efforts to preserve Dearfield through legislative action. HB 6438, the Dearfield Study Act, is currently still in the House. First introduced by the two lawmakers in January 2022, the bill was designed to preserve Dearfield “as a testament to the Black community in Colorado and across the country,” Neguse said. The DOI letter indicates that even though HB 6438 has not yet been implemented legislatively, NPS is taking steps outlined in the bill to preserve the town. If established as a national historic site, Dearfield would gain, among other benefits, greater awareness and additional avenues for funding.
A few short years ago, Dearfield was nearly erased from the map completely. In 2019, manufactured housing company Clayton Homes was set to construct modular homes on Dearfield. Clayton eventually responded to public pressure by agreeing to a land swap with the Black American West Museum (BAWM), which now owns the homestead site. But without formal safeguards in place, Dearfield remains susceptible to future development or other forms of destruction, making the survey a key step in protecting a cultural cornerstone of Black American history.
Dearfield is “one of only two African-American historical townsites in the country that have standing structures remaining,” said Andrew Feinstein, president of UNC, at the eighth annual Dearfield conference on May 21. The once-bustling town has only three buildings left: the Dearfield Filling Station, a diner, and the home of the town’s founder, O.T. Jackson. These three structures, in addition to a fallen lunchroom and blacksmith’s shop, have been the focus of recent preservation efforts. The urgency of preservation is high, as Dr. Robert Brunswig, professor emeritus of anthropology at UNC and a leader in Dearfield research and preservation, notes: “These are deteriorating buildings that are over a century old.” The past several decades have chipped away at Dearfield’s remaining structures—for example, the town grocery store fell in the late 1990s—so the pressure to save what’s left from a similar fate is high.
In late 2021, the standing buildings were secured through protective chain-link fencing, heavy duty doors and thick polycarbonate window coverings. Termed “mothballing,” these measures address the ongoing threat of vandalism at Dearfield.
“People would come in … break through the windows and the doors,” explains Junne. “We find empty beer bottles, whiskey bottles. [People] urinate inside, defecate inside, put graffiti inside.”
In April and May 2022, the site underwent weeks of hazmat testing and abatement that resulted in the removal of lead-based paint and asbestos. As of late May, the process was nearly complete—marking the first step of an existing UNC preservation project funded by a half-million-dollar NPS grant awarded in September 2021.
“We started a little later than we would have hoped,” Brunswig says, due to the inability to work on the site during winter.
The next steps
Now, and in the coming months, the NPS grant will support preservation efforts focused on building stabilization and exterior restoration to return the structures to their historic appearance. To start, this will include an architectural study of the walls and buildings to plan and design areas of work. It will be followed by the actual restoration of roofs, siding and foundation. The goal, Brunswig says, is for the exterior of the filling station and O.T. Jackson house to “look more or less like what they looked like in, say, 1920.”
Kim Grant, the endangered places program director for CPI, anticipates this process will take about two years. He also says a separate grant through the Colorado State Historical Fund was allocated in June 2022, which will provide more than $49,000 in funding for the architectural design and restoration of the buildings’ interiors.
In 2010, BAWM began hosting Dearfield Days, which spurred the interest and recognition Dearfield receives today. For its key role in preservation efforts, BAWM received CPI’s Dana Crawford State Honor Award on June 9, which honors preservation efforts for Colorado’s historically significant sites and working landscapes. CPI highlighted Dearfield as “one of those important sites that helps to tell the story of western migration of Black Americans,” says Grant. “It’s a remarkable story.”
Dearfield was known in the mid-1910s through the early 1920s for its agricultural success—strawberries, turnips, wheat and many other crops were not only common, but often yielded unusually large harvests. The town celebrated its prosperity through harvest festivals, where even “the governors would come out … that’s how much of a well-known place [Dearfield] was,” Junne says.
It was also one of the few places where “African Americans had their own homes, their own farms,” Junne says—where a self-sufficient community was created—a reality not many in a deeply segregated America could achieve.
Five archaeological field seasons have been conducted at Dearfield over the last 10 years, spearheaded by Brunswig. A sixth began this June. Items recovered so far include glass beads, shotgun shells, a rubber shoe sole and a 1920s car speedometer.
“What we’re finding out there is not a lot of things that are really earthshaking, but add little pieces to the puzzle,” Junne says. The objects paint a picture of a middle class community, with some of the highest quality materials coming from the home of founder O.T. Jackson.
A racially progressive town
Dearfield was exceptional not only for its farming, but for its level of racial integration. The town’s school taught both white and Black children, decades ahead of Brown v. Board of Education. Black farmers, one of whom owned the first wheat thrashers in the area, would lend their equipment to white neighbors and vice versa.
“By 1915, you got the rise of the Klu Klux Klan,” Junne explains, “and Denver had one of the biggest klaverns of klan members in the United States. But out there on the farmland, the Black and white farmers got along together.” Additionally, Black women and men in the area sought work at white houses and farms. The need to rely on each other in the harsh conditions of Colorado homesteading helped cultivate an environment of racial tolerance.
But even when it came to recreation, Dearfield was unique. One early Black settler, Squire Brockman, would host dances with his brother-in-law. Both Black and white townsfolk came to enjoy the pair’s fiddle and banjo. They danced on the same floor, which was extremely rare for the time. Dearfield’s baseball team played against all of the white teams in the area.
“It was really kind of a model community in that sense,” Junne remarks.
The role of women
Though Dearfield was a trailblazer in racial integration, women bore the brunt of the day-to-day work that created success for the entire community. Homesteading was a difficult and expensive proposition and men often “went off to work building railroads, working in the towns and working in the cities,” such as nearby Denver to supplement their income, Brunswig says. That left the wives to “stay behind, raise the kids and basically keep the farms going. So there was a lot of responsibility and a lot of stress for women. They were tough people.”
Not uncommon for homesteads across the West, women would do “everything—from maintaining the households, cooking the meals, raising the children and actually doing a lot of the hard, physical work outside. They were really the bulwark of the homesteads and farmsteads of the day,” Brunswig says. They maintained social ties with distant homesteads and enriched church life. Yet, while historical records and photographs of Dearfield do include women, they are “not well represented.” This was due to discrimination against Black communities and because women in general were “in some ways, second to their husbands,” Brunswig says. “They were secondary because they didn’t necessarily own the land themselves and they didn’t necessarily do all of the official legal documents.”
O.T. Jackson’s second wife, Minerva Jane Jackson, established herself as a community matriarch. O.T., like many Dearfield men, was often away working in Denver. In his absence, Minerva was instrumental in maintaining and growing the community. Junne says she was functionally “in charge. You didn’t go against her.”
Brunswig expands on this, saying “She was kind of the backbone of the town of Dearfield and a lot of the farmsteads around [Dearfield]. She was a tough lady.” Minerva’s story reflects an unfortunate reality of many homesteading women in both Dearfield and beyond: As Brunswig says, “Women were responsible for an awful lot of the success but at the same time, I don’t think generally they were given enough of the credit.”
When the Dust Bowl swept through the region in the 1930s, Dearfield was one of its many victims. The changing weather patterns made farming impossible for Dearfield residents. The town was abandoned, with some people relocating to Greeley and Denver.
“It was a huge mass exodus because the topsoil blew away,” Junne says. “The failure had nothing to do with [Black people]; it was the weather.”
Nearly 100 years later, the town is regaining its mark in Black American history. To Brunswig, preserving Dearfield is about “honoring the legacy of people that have gone before [us]; that have made our nation what it is today.” It is about addressing “the histories that have taken place over the past century, two centuries … and understanding it.” And it is about celebrating Black people’s importance in “defin[ing] the future, not just the past.”
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