Oliver Toussaint “O. T.” Jackson (1862–1948) was an entrepreneur and prominent member of black communities in Denver and Boulder during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1910 he founded Dearfield, an-all black agricultural settlement some twenty-five miles southeast of Greeley. Jackson firmly believed that successful blacks should work to help poorer blacks and that land ownership and agriculture were keys to a prosperous future for African Americans. Although Dearfield is a ghost town today, the community’s success from 1915 through the 1930s was a testament to Jackson’s leadership and solidified his place among Colorado’s notable visionaries of the twentieth century.
Oliver Toussaint Jackson was born on April 6, 1862, in Oxford, Ohio, the son of former slaves Hezekiah and Caroline Jackson. They named him after Toussaint L’Ouverture, the maroon slave who successfully overthrew the French in Haiti in 1804. In 1887 O. T. Jackson moved from the Midwest to the Denver area, where he worked as a caterer.
In 1889 he married Sarah “Sadie” Cook, aunt of the famous composer Will Marion Cook. By 1894 Jackson had made enough money to buy a farm outside Boulder, which he owned for sixteen years. He lived at 2228 Pine Street in Boulder and, in addition to his farm, he began operating the Stillman Café and Ice Cream Parlor on Thirteenth Street. In 1898 he became a staff manager at the Chautauqua Dining Hall, supervising seventy people (and possibly owning the food concession). Jackson also owned and operated a restaurant at Fifty-fifth and Arapahoe Streets that became famous for its seafood. The eatery remained popular until it closed when Boulder went dry in 1907.
Confusion exists about whether Jackson and his first wife divorced or if she died. In either case, he married Minerva J. Matlock, a schoolteacher from Missouri, on July 14, 1905. In 1908 Jackson returned to Denver, where he began a twenty-year career as a messenger for Colorado governors.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some 20 percent of blacks in the United States worked in agriculture, but few owned the land they worked on. Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), Jackson believed that farming their own fields would empower black Coloradans, and he tried to start an all-black agricultural colony. The state land office, however, often ignored his requests because he was black. Jackson eventually secured the help of Governor John F. Shafroth, for whom he worked as a messenger, and obtained land for his colony. In 1909, after considering three tracts of homestead land in Larimer, Elbert, and Weld Counties, Jackson selected a 320-acre tract in Weld County near present-day Orchard. Like other agricultural communities along the Front Range, Jackson’s would be modeled after the Union Colony, founded in 1870. But unlike the Union Colony, which was backed by wealthy newspaperman Horace Greeley, Jackson’s colony did not garner financial support from prominent black organizations, so he was left to realize his dream on his own.
In December 1909, Jackson formed the Negro Townsite and Land Company to develop the colony. That year, Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook of Denver, one of the colony’s first settlers and most ardent supporters, remarked that the colony “will be very dear to us,” thus bestowing a name, Dearfield, on the new community. Dearfield was officially established in 1910.
Jackson’s family and the rest of Dearfield’s early settlers had many problems. Some were so poor they could not afford to ship their possessions from Denver, so they walked part of the distance. Among this group only two families could afford to erect a twelve-by-fourteen-foot building with a fence. The other five families had to live in tents or in holes dug in a hillside. Sometimes the men had to work on other farms to earn spending money while their wives and children worked the land. There were also continual shortages of fuel—many residents burned buffalo chips to keep warm—and water.
Over time, however, the colony prospered. Residents raised a variety of crops and livestock, including corn, melons, squash, hay, sugar beets, alfalfa, ducks, chickens, and turkey. A surge in prices for agricultural products during World War I helped the community, and by 1921 Dearfield’s land was valued at $750,000 and supported a population of 700. But despite the determination of Jackson and the rest of Dearfield’s residents, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s decimated the colony. By 1940 only twelve residents remained.
As people left, Jackson sold Dearfield’s buildings for lumber because it was so scarce. Some folks in the 1930s sold out for five dollars a house. Even before he became ill in 1946, Jackson had been searching for a young black man to keep his dream alive. He told a returning World War II serviceman who had lived with the Jacksons as a boy that “he could have the whole thing” if he would come out to Dearfield and run the place for him. The young man’s new bride did not want any part of it, so he declined.
Jackson’s wife Minerva died in 1942. When he could not find any willing buyers for the property, in 1943 he asked his nieces, Jenny Jackson and Daisy Edwards, to come to Dearfield. Daisy came for a short time, while Jenny stayed to nurse her uncle in his last years.
Illness and age had overtaken Jackson’s messianic zeal. In 1946, at the age of eighty-four, he again tried to sell Dearfield with an advertisement in the Greeley Tribune. He had no takers. The land remained in Jackson’s possession until his death in a Greeley hospital on February 8, 1948. He had lived in Dearfield for thirty-eight years. His dutiful niece Jenny, who had cared for him the last five years of his life, remained alone in Dearfield for more than twenty years until her death in 1973.
The Dearfield site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Today, several preservation organizations, including Denver’s Black American West Museum, are working to restore the site’s six original buildings and develop Dearfield into an interpretive historical site.
Adapted from Karen Waddell, “Dearfield . . . A Dream Deferred,” Colorado Heritage no. 2 (1988).