Established on May 5, 1910, by a young entrepreneur named Oliver Toussaint Jackson, Dearfield was an agricultural colony for black people about twenty-five miles southeast of Greeley. For two decades nearly 700 black people worked to transform the rolling desert hills into a thriving farm community. The Great Depression and a major drought drove most of these farmers away, leaving only Jackson and his niece by the 1940s. Today Dearfield is a ghost town with only a handful of buildings remaining, but the Black American West Museum and other groups are working to improve preservation and historical interpretation at the site.
Oliver Toussaint Jackson, or O. T. Jackson as he was commonly known, came to Colorado in 1887 from Oxford, Ohio. He began his career at the age of fourteen in the catering and restaurant business, a skill he successfully employed in Denver and Boulder. Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), Jackson dreamed of a place where people like him could farm and become self-sufficient.
In 1906 Jackson began looking for a location that would accommodate 200 black families. He soon met his first hurdle. “I found it difficult to get the people in the land office to pay very much attention to a negro,” he said. To remedy that, he became active in politics and was soon appointed messenger in the office of Governor John Shafroth. Shafroth helped Jackson select land in Weld County, where he filed a desert claim of 320 acres. Jackson once explained the choice by noting that the land was only five miles from a railroad station and seventy miles from Denver, which he thought would assure a market for the colony’s produce. He would model the colony after the Union Colony, an agricultural community founded in 1870 near present-day Greeley.
Unfortunately for Jackson, no black organization equal to the Greeley Union Colony was willing to support his group’s effort. He first proposed the colony venture to the Colorado Negro Business League, an offshoot of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League. The league was supportive of the idea and even called Jackson’s colony project its “first begotten child.” But when Washington did not endorse the plan, the local group dropped the idea. (Washington said that he simply could not back every project needing help.)
Jackson proceeded alone, without the support of black leadership. The black monied interests and other black bourgeoisie did not support him, in part for political reasons. Many of those in the new black leadership were affiliated with the party of Lincoln, while Jackson supported Democratic candidates and worked for a Democratic governor. Jackson was a hard man for Denver’s black leadership to fathom. He did not align himself behind a partisan leader but instead tried to apply the popular “back to the land” and colony ideas of the day, while seeking support from anyone who could help.
Jackson expressed his dream at a special meeting of the stockholders and subscribers of the Negro Townsite and Land Company on December 8, 1909. Jackson, president of the organization, told the group that “if a community of representative families can be located in a farming community it would be laying a foundation for the future of a race.” The idea of “race duty” was self-evident in his life’s work. He believed in the duty of the more advantaged to help create an opportunity which would “lift up weaker ones of their race.”
The name Dearfield, suggested by black Denver physician Dr. J. H. Westbrook, was chosen at a meeting in late 1910 to express how dear the land would be to the colony’s residents. Seven other black men filed for land that year, and in 1911 Dearfield boasted seven families.
Early Struggles and Brief Prosperity
In his description of Dearfield’s first year, O. T. Jackson wrote that “[t]he new settlers at Dearfield were as poor as people could be when they took up their homesteads. . . . Some were in tents, some in dugouts and some just had a cave in the hillside.” Residents planted small garden crops of corn, melons, pumpkins, squash, beans, and hay, and raised chickens, ducks, and turkey. “That winter,” Jackson wrote, “only two of us had wooden houses, and the suffering was intense. We had scarcely any wood to burn. Buffalo chips and sagebrush was our chief fuel.” The only other fuel was driftwood from the Platte River, which the settlers carried back to Dearfield on their heads.
Only about seven of the original sixty settlers were farmers, according to Jackson. He also admitted that they became successful “without capital or any appreciable knowledge of dry farming.” They did, however, receive assistance from the state agricultural college and the county superintendent and sent delegates to the farmers’ congress at Greeley and Fort Collins.
In his letters and promotional pieces, it is often difficult to distinguish between what really existed at Dearfield and what were merely Jackson’s hopes for the future. His vision included a soap factory, a fifty-room hotel, a grain elevator, a creamery, a bank, and a packing and provision company. He also stated that a white philanthropist in Colorado offered to build a large sanatorium to be supported by black charitable organizations, churches, lodges, and insurance organizations. None of this was ever realized.
Dearfield persevered, however, and by 1914 the community was beginning to show signs of prosperity. That year residents were also helped by a large snowstorm that left precipitation on the ground until the following spring. The colony’s population grew to 111 in 1915, and residents filed for homesteads on 8,400 of the 20,000 available acres in Weld County. Residents planted oats, barley, alfalfa, corn, beans, potatoes, sugar beets, watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and squash on 595 cultivated acres. The settlement also began hosting weekend dances for visitors from Denver, which both raised revenue for the colony and established connections with Denver’s black community.
World War I provided a reliable market for Dearfield’s crops, but in 1918 the war ended and the inflated market fell. Like others at the time, Dearfield farmers were caught up in the temporary prosperity and had acquired mortgages, new machinery, and debts. As for Jackson, he switched gears from pushing farming to selling lots for houses in the settlement.
As the wartime prices fell, more than 400,000 farmers nationwide lost their farms. Dearfield, together with many other marginal farming communities, was hit hard. Jackson claimed that the drop in prices after World War I started the downward spiral of Dearfield’s prosperity.
In 1921 the settlement consisted of 700 people, a school, and two churches, with an aggregate land value of $750,000. The livestock and poultry was valued at $200,000 and annual production was in the range of $125,000. However, only the most tenacious farmers survived the hard times of the 1920s. Those who managed to stick to the land through the early Great Depression years were plagued by a drought that lasted from 1931 to 1939. The 1940 census listed the population of Dearfield as only twelve, and if the census is correct, only twenty black farmers existed in all of Colorado.
Even a driven man like O. T. Jackson could not withstand the constant barrage of hard luck. As people left, he sold the buildings for precious lumber. Some folks in the 1930s sold out for five dollars per house. Jackson kept the filling station and the lunch counter open until he became ill in 1946. He searched for a young black man to keep his dream alive, but could find neither a successor nor a willing buyer for the property. Jackson held the property until his death in 1948. His niece, Jenny, remained at Dearfield until she died in 1973.
Today, Dearfield is a ghost town, although several organizations are working to restore its six original buildings and develop the area as a historic site. In addition to the buildings, two ruins at the site roughly date from 1911 to the early 1940s. The present-day gas station/store is located directly south of the highway, along with the historic lunchroom. Another building that once housed a blacksmith’s shop and garage sits directly south of the lunchroom. Behind these two buildings rests a small wooden structure on a crumbling foundation, once rented out as a hunter’s cabin.
The remaining historical structures and ruins may be reached via a rough road that was once Dearfield’s Washington Avenue. East of the road rests a false-front building referred to as a hotel, also believed to be Jackson’s residence in his later years. South of the hotel are the ruins of a granary. West of the road lie the ruins of a grocery store that was later converted into a residence. Farther west stand the structural remains of a small cabin owned by Squire Brockman, a well-known fiddle player and one of Dearfield’s last residents in the 1940s.
In 1995 Dearfield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999 Colorado Preservation, Inc. named it one of the state’s “Most Endangered Places” and started to work with Denver’s Black American West Museum and Colorado State University’s Architectural Preservation Institute to preserve what remained of the site. The organizations received funding from the state legislature and the State Historical Fund, and partnered with AmeriCorps to clean and stabilize Dearfield’s buildings. By the time Dearfield celebrated its 100th anniversary in September 2010, three of the six remaining buildings had been stabilized. In addition, the Black American West Museum has slowly accumulated property in the area with the goal of developing the site for historical interpretation.
Adapted from Karen Waddell, “Dearfield . . . A Dream Deferred,” Colorado Heritage no. 2 (1988).