Dearfield, Colorado, is one of the last standing towns started by Black homesteaders in the Great Plains. Now, property in the ghost town has changed hands, ensuring that key sites will be protected.
Dearfield is one of many farming colonies in the West founded by Black homesteaders, a movement the National Park Service called an “epic tale of African American achievement” that was “nearly lost” but for the efforts of groups like the Denver-based Black American West Museum & Heritage Center. Only two sites, including Dearfield, still have original buildings standing. At its height, the African American farming colony had hundreds of residents, most of whom left amid the double whammy of Dust Bowl and Depression.
The Black American West Museum & Heritage Center owns pieces of the town. Denise Leadon, vice chair of the museum’s board of directors, said Clayton Homes began to buy up lots that weren’t owned by the museum with the goal of building prefabricated houses there.
“Unbeknownst to us, they had purchased all these lots in the historical townsite from individuals and they actually owned more lots than we did,” she said.
Leadon says they’d been trying to get key properties for years, an effort that became more urgent when it became clear the company had imminent plans to build, and was seeking permits for a well and septic system on a property that contained an unexcavated general store.
Last week, the museum and Clayton Homes finally came to an agreement.
“We didn’t have the funding to actually buy them out of the lots [in the historical town center],” said Leadon. So, the museum sold Clayton Homes 12 blocks of less historically significant property, comprised of former farmland (shown below in yellow). With funding from that sale, the museum was able to purchase property in the center of the historic townsite (shown below in blue) and still had $180,000 left over.
The Black American West Museum & Heritage Center “needs a lot of help,” said Leadon. “So this will be helpful for that.”
The museum also retained mineral rights on their former property.
Leadon added that the museum would have held onto all their Dearfield property if finances had allowed.
“It’s a relief that we own the lots,” said Leadon. “We’re happy that we’re protecting it.”
Homesteading began in 1862, but it wasn’t until four years later, when Black Americans were declared U.S. citizens, that they could join others in moving West to claim 160 acres apiece of what was considered “free public land” in the West. They founded communities like Blackdom, New Mexico, Empire, Wyoming, and Nicodemus, Kansas. As researchers have pointed out, among the thousands of Black homesteaders were people who had gone from being property to owning property in their lifetimes. They also created their own education systems, some beginning with classrooms dug out of a hillside.
“It’s a fantastic day now, with the museum being in control of the core townsite. That was key,” said Charles Nuckolls, who produced, wrote and directed a two-hour historical documentary about Dearfield that came out earlier this year. “This is a victory for historic preservation.”
Currently, archaeologists and volunteers are excavating the remains of a blacksmith’s workshop, which was recently totaled by strong winds. Bill Garcia and his daughters were among the volunteers this field season, taking notes on some of the artifacts excavated from the smithy, which has so far included Mason jars, a bead, a container for pickling vegetables and pottery that looked like it could be a family heirloom.
“I think that it’s important not just to talk about what we’re facing today but also to preserve the history of what has gone before, and those great people that lived and made a homestead out in the middle of nowhere,” said Garcia, an attorney based in Greeley and a former Weld County Commissioner, who has focused local efforts on preserving Dearfield since driving past the site in 1990.
Garcia and others were concerned to learn that Clayton Homes was accumulating slivers of land with the intent of developing them.
"In fact they even got started with the well permit and septic to do that,” said Garcia, who prepared the museum’s sales contract. “This really turns out to be a win-win, for Clayton Homes to be able to get a nice size collection of parcels where they could build some homes that are not in the historic area and provide the museum with the opportunity to further preserve and interpret those sites.”
There aren’t yet plans to excavate the property that holds the ruins of the general store, but archaeologist Bob Brunswig expects it will be revealing.
“During the 1930s, when most of Dearfield was pretty much abandoned, it became a dance hall for area residents,” said Brunswig, professor emeritus with the University of Northern Colorado and a member of a consortium called the Dearfield Preservation Partnership. “The local blacksmith, who continued to live there until his death in 1951 -- he and his brother-in-law would play the mandolin and the fiddle for people. White people, Hispanics, and the few remaining Black families would come there for recreation during the Depression.”
Brunswig said there’s evidence the land newly acquired by the museum may have once housed homes and businesses. The swap, he said, “allows us access to those so that we can put together a better picture of the entire town and how it evolved and changed over time.”
The town went through rapid growth. According to Brunswig, there’s evidence that in 1910 and 1911, when the very first residents of Dearfield arrived, they dug shelters out of a sandy hillside and toughed out “a brutal winter” there before they could muster supplies to build houses. Five years later, there was a dance hall, restaurant, grocery store and boarding house and crops like sugar beets and cantaloupes.
“Through the efforts and work of these people, they got to the point where they were a functioning, thriving, agricultural and social community,” said Charles Nuckolls, the documentarian. And the residents didn’t even have water rights.
“That is a success story anywhere,” he said, but especially so during Jim Crow.
Nuckolls continued: “During this transformative time in American history, when many monuments that were created to glorify slavery are being dismantled both by governmental doctrine and by citizens spontaneously demanding their immediate removal by tearing them down, it’s noteworthy that this important African American history is being preserved. As it should be.”
He hopes future archaeology on the new properties will shed some light on a burning question: What was a regular day in Dearfield really like?
This story was updated July 1, 2020 with a map of the properties exchanged, and a link to a list of Black homesteader communities in Colorado compiled by George Junne, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, and inclusion of Bob Brunswig's affiliation with the Dearfield Preservation Partnership.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.