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