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See inside the crumbling ghost town that was once home to one of America's most successful Black farming communities

·10-min read
An old chair inside OT Jackson's former home in Dearfield, Colorado.
An old chair inside OT Jackson's former home in Dearfield, Colorado. Monica Humphries/Insider
  • Dearfield, Colorado, is a tiny abandoned town about an hour northeast of Denver.

  • A century ago, it was home to one of the country's most prosperous Black agricultural communities.

  • Today, its buildings are decaying and organizations are working to preserve the historic site.

Just northeast of Denver in Colorado is a little town called Dearfield. A century ago, it was home to one of the country's most prosperous Black agricultural communities.

Dearfield colorado
Dearfield, Colorado, is northeast of Denver. Google Maps

Dearfield was founded in 1910 by entrepreneur Oliver Toussaint (OT) Jackson, who was tired of seeing the lack of economic and social progress for his fellow Black community in Denver, according to Black Past.

"Dearfield was an idea that had been around in Colorado for years before Jackson actually established the townsite," Robert Brunswig, an anthropology professor at the University of Northern Colorado, told Insider.

But Jackson and his entrepreneurial spirit made it happen. He envisioned an African-American farming community with more than 10,000 people, and his Dearfield dream extended past farming. He hoped to one day have a college and sanatorium, he explained in a letter pitching his idea for Dearfield. It was a sort of experiment at the time, Brunswig explained.

Today it's a ghost town off of highway US 34. The road turns into an unswerving, two-lane road with farmland stretching in every direction as you approach.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
The highway the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado, sits on. Monica Humphries/Insider

Dearfield is one of dozens of ghost towns in Colorado. Some were once bustling mining locales, others were abandoned for mysterious reasons, and a handful were successful agricultural hubs for formerly enslaved people seeking economic opportunity.

If you weren't looking for it, you'd likely drive right past Dearfield, Colorado. A marble sign marks the site and only a handful of buildings stand today.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
A marble plaque offers a bit of history into the former farming community. Monica Humphries/Insider

It's a small area, but Dearfield was once a prosperous community that offered Black middle-class people a path to self-sufficiency, anthropology professor Brunswig told Insider.

"Although we had other communities like Dearfield, Dearfield itself was probably the most persistent and concentrated effort to try to bring African Americans together so they could better their lives," Brunswig said.

While Dearfield was a popular farming community, it was also regarded as a popular travel destination for people living in nearby Denver, according to 5280 Magazine. Dearfield offered hotel rooms, free camping, places to hunt, and beautiful scenery near the South Platte River.

On a recent visit to the site, visitors walked past a sign that was the original advertisement with photos of the community.

A reprinted advertisement for Dearfield, Colorado.
A reprinted advertisement for Dearfield, Colorado. Monica Humphries/Insider

The signs were erected by Brunswig and his colleagues at the University of Northern Colorado, and members from the Black American West Museum, which owns the property, for Dearfield Day.

The surrounding community is welcomed to the ghost town, and visitors learn about the Dearfield's historic past and tour the few remaining buildings.

Dearfield only lasted 20 or so years, but during that time, the community flourished.

The exterior of Dearfield's original filling station.
The exterior of Dearfield's original filling station. Monica Humphries/Insider

Homesteading opportunities and the chance to own land were few and far between for African Americans in Colorado, Brunswig said.

This made Dearfield an attractive, albeit challenging, place to live.

Although the region had optimal farming conditions, most of Dearfield's residents had never farmed, said George Junne, the coordinator of Africana studies at the University of Northern Colorado. Meanwhile, harsh winters were a challenge and the nearest water source involved an arduous journey.

Many of those challenges fell on the women and children of Dearfield, Junne said, since most of the men spent weekdays working in Denver.

"The reason that Dearfield ultimately fell apart was the same reason that the whole country fell apart," Brunswig said. "We had an economic and environmental collapse."

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
A closet in OT Jackson's original home. Monica Humphries/Insider

In the early 1930s, rainfall vanished, farmland dried up, and Dearfield became one of the dozens of towns eradicated in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

"Dearfield couldn't sustain itself," Brunswig said. "It wasn't a failure of the experiment, it was a failure of not being able to sustain the experiment because of conditions beyond people's control."

The residents left Dearfield for more prosperous destinations.

Today it's one of the few historically Black agricultural communities with original buildings. While four structures remain, only two are original.

The exterior of OT Jackson's house.
The exterior of OT Jackson's house. Monica Humphries/Insider

Visitors can tour the buildings and on a recent visit, I was even able to step inside to see what remained of the town.

As you walk through the ghost town, each building had its own sign with its history. Here, for example, a sign dives into the history of Dearfield's dance hall.

A sign explaining the location and history of a meeting place and dance hall.
A sign explaining the location and history of a meeting place and dance hall. Monica Humphries/Insider

The townsite was once home to churches, a gas station, a general store, a café, and a dance hall. The two buildings that remain are what was formerly a gas station and a hotel.

Tucked away from the road is Jackson's family home, which was originally built as the Dearfield Lodge.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
A room inside OT Jackson's home. Monica Humphries/Insider

Originally a small hotel that attracted renters, Jackson later decided to make the building his family's house, Junne said.

The home's floor is deteriorating and layers of paint peel from its walls. In the 1940s, Jackson's niece inherited the home but no one has occupied it since 1973, Junne said.

The home is filled with rusting relics of what life looked like decades ago.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
Old appliances filled the entrance of Jackson's home. Monica Humphries/Insider

The townsite's artifacts aren't just inside the few remaining buildings. Brunswig, researchers, and students have spent years conducting archeological digs in Dearfield.

Over the years, they've found concrete foundations from what were once homes, pavilions, and other buildings.

A lone ice skate, silverware, broken plates, kerosene lamps, and other relics also offer insight into what society was like in Dearfield.

Closer to the road is what was once the Dearfield Service Station.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
The exterior of the filling station, which remained open until the 1980s. Monica Humphries/Insider

Historians estimate that Jackson built this building between 1919 and 1920.

It's located right off the highway, where travelers would stop at Dearfield to fill up both their cars and stomaches at the gas station and lunch room.

This building hasn't fared as well as Jackson's house. Inside, there's graffiti, and the walls of the building have been removed.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
One of Dearfield's greatest challenges has been trespassers. Monica Humphries/Insider

The house succumbed to trespassers over the years, Junne said. Tiles had fallen from the bathroom wall, the home's carpet no longer exists, and a skeleton frame of the building remains.

Before it looked like this, Junne said it would've been bustling with travelers.

There are still signs of what the building once was. There's an ice chest in one corner of the room, and the wood beams are stamped with Jackson's name.

A stamp on a wood beam in the filling station.
A stamp on a wood beam in the filling station. Monica Humphries/Insider

In 1945, Jackson sold the building, but it remained in service for another few decades until the 1980s, Junne said.

The filling station stayed open, and its operators built a home and garage next door. Today, those two buildings are also abandoned.

Next to the old filling station is an abandoned home. Likely built between 1940 and 1950, it isn't part of the original townsite.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
A rusted bed frame sits in an old home in the Dearfield site. Monica Humphries/Insider

Rusting metal, molding clothes, and decaying wood fill the floors of the abandoned home.

Behind the home is another building from the mid-1900s, which was once a garage. Today, it's filled with broken glass bottles.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
Inside the garage, glass jars fill an old workbench. Monica Humphries/Insider

One of the last standing buildings is an old, metal garage. An eerie green color casts through its plastic windows, and not much remains today.

Bolted to the roof is an old sign advertising Dearfield, but it's spelled incorrectly.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
On the ceiling, an old sign advertises the townsite. Monica Humphries/Insider

While the vast majority of Dearfield's residents left in the early 1930s, Jackson and a few others kept Dearfield's lunch room and filling station open for years.

There's also a crumbling wood structure that's hard to ignore. This was originally the Dearfield lunch room, but in 2020, strong winds collapsed the building.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
The building collapsed because of strong winds from a microburst. Monica Humphries/Insider

The lunch room was built around the same time as the filling station. While cars fueled up on gas, the lunch room served barbeque chicken, pork ribs, and pies.

Jackson and Minerva ran the café through 1939. In 2020, the building was destroyed in a microburst, which is a type of thunderstorm, Dunne said.

Empty fields were previously home to dance halls, churches, and other family homes.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
The area was once home to a pavilion for Dearfield residents. Monica Humphries/Insider

In many ways, Dearfield was ahead of its time and much more integrated than other Black agricultural communities, Junne said.

A Black baseball team competed against white rivaling teams and the townsite's dance hall was shared by everyone.

"You have Black people and white people on the same dance floor," Junne said. "It a lot of interesting mixes you wouldn't see in other communities and in other parts of the country."

The town represents the idea that motivation, hard work, and thinking big can lead to prosperity, Brunswig said.

Photos of the ghost town of Dearfield, Colorado.
A room inside OT Jackson's home. Monica Humphries/Insider

At the heart of Dearfield was the goal of prosperity.

"That's what Dearfield was all about, opening up opportunities for yourself, for your children, and your grandchildren," Brunswig said.

Brunswig emphasized that it wasn't without hard work.

"It took a lot of grit, it took a lot of pain, and a lot of enduring circumstances," he said. "But they saw something beyond what's just in front of their eyes."

For decades, people like Brunswig, Junne, and others have been working to preserve the few remaining buildings.

The roof of a building in Dearfield, Coloardo.
The roof of OT Jackson's home. Monica Humphries/Insider

In 2008, a group of colleagues at the University of Northern Colorado started the Dearfield Committee to promote and restore Dearfield, but even before then, there were efforts to preserve the townsite.

Brunswig said the current "goal is to eventually turn Dearfield into a historic site with exhibits filling the now-empty buildings."

Today, the Black American West Museum owns the townsite with those same preservation plans in mind. Currently, the group is looking for funding to preserve and protect the two remaining buildings. In August, the University of Northern Colorado received a $500,000 grant toward preservation efforts. However, Brunswig said there's more funding needed.

"The idea is first to preserve and conserve the resource, second is to really broaden our understanding of what Dearfield represented and what its historical importance is," Brunswig said. "And make that a part of our legacy."

Read the original article on Insider

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