Forgotten Towns, Dearfield, Colorado
Dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of once thriving communities are gone. They are abandoned, ghost towns.
Some might still have a couple of buildings still standing, crumbling away, providing a clue there was once life there. Just as many show no trace at all.
Many of those towns were built by African-Americans.
One such place is Dearfield, Colorado.
Dearfield, what’s left of it, is situated about 70 miles east and slightly north of Denver. To get to it, coming from the east, you turn off Interstate 76 onto Highway 34 and travel about 12 miles to the west.
The site is easy to find, on the south side of the road. Historical markers will draw your attention to it.
Dearfield was the lifetime dream of Oliver Toussaint Jackson, known as OT.
OT was born in Ohio in 1862 and moved to Colorado in 1887 where he worked and succeeded as a newspaperman, restaurant owner and entrepreneur. He served as a messenger for the Governor, providing him political connections, and was founder of Colorado’s Booker T. Washington National Negro Business League.
In 1910, at the age of 33, OT purchased property at the Dearfield location and began his work convincing Denver black families to join him. He deeply believed in the importance of African-American land ownership.
Perhaps not so surprisingly the first couple of years were difficult. Several families lived there but only two families had actual wooden houses. Others lived in tents and earthen dugouts, providing little protection during the winter. They burned sagebrush and cow chips to keep warm. (For the uninitiated, cow chips is the euphemism for dried up cow poop.)
But by the late 1910s, thanks to favorable weather conditions that helped in growing crops, as well as the inflation of food prices at the time due to World War I, Dearfield had begun to thrive.
Estimates vary considerably, but somewhere around 300 people, give or take, lived in the community. Two churches provided Sunday services for residents. There was a lumber yard, a company manufacturing concrete blocks, restaurant, school and an annual town festival.
Things soon changed. With the war coming to an end, food prices began to fall. The plentiful rains that had fed the crops turned out to be an anomaly and became less reliable.
By 1925, population had already dropped to just a percentage of what it was during Dearfield’s peak a handful of years earlier. The Dust Bowl years of the 1930s put an end to the community entirely. Most of the town was torn down and the lumber reused.
OT never gave up on his dream. At one point he tried to promote Dearfield as a resort area for African-Americans. When all else failed he offered to sell it to the federal government for use as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Neither plan succeeded.
OT died in 1948, in Dearfield. His niece, Jennie, moved there in 1943 to care for him. She inherited his property and was Dearfield’s last permanent resident when she died in 1973.
A marker sits in front of what was once the town’s blacksmith shop, right along Highway 34.
A chain link fence surrounds the falling structure, considered unsafe for people to be around. Judging by the large hole in the fence and graffiti on the building it has not served as a particularly mighty deterrent.
The good news, as such it might be, is that Dearfield has not been forgotten. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and the University of Northern Colorado, along with Denver’s Black American West Museum, have made efforts to preserve its history though, as with many historical preservation efforts, financing has been difficult.
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