Along Highway 34, twenty-five miles southeast of Greely, sits a ghost town from the 1910s. It is easy to miss – just a few worn-down buildings and a small commemorative stone with a plaque – but the little town was once home to a flourishing Black agricultural community. Now bare and desolate, Dearfield sits unprotected from vandalism and damage from the harsh weather of the plains (1). Dearfield stands as an example of African American agricultural settlement out West during the early 20th century. Despite the town’s historic importance and the rallying efforts of many dedicated people and organizations, Dearfield is in danger of being lost. This town’s unique story of Black history deserves preservation; therefore, the National Parks Service should make it an official NPS Unit.
Inspiration and Importance of Dearfield
Dearfield’s story does not just celebrate the accomplishments of one African American, but rather represents a communal story of Black success in the West. In 1910, Black Denverite Oliver Toussaint Jackson had a dream to “allow those who wanted to carve a better life to reach out and grab hold of it” (3). He was inspired to found a Black western community after reading Booker T Washington’s 1901 work, Up From Slavery, which encouraged people of color to use their newfound freedoms to pursue economic and cultural success (4). After repeated requests for land grants being denied by white landowners, Jackson filed a desert claim in Weld County in 1910, which grew into a town consisting of 27 families. At its peak during 1917-1921, Dearfield included 44 wooden cabins, many acres of cultivated land for farming, a concrete block factory, lodge hall, church, restaurant, grocery store, and boarding house (5).
The result of Jackson’s dream and the dedication and ingenuity of its residents, Dearfield had successfully become a self-sufficient Black town with a culture that held statewide importance. Townsfolk collectively learned to grow oats, barley, corn, beans, alfalfa, and sugar beets in the Colorado soil. They were also able to master dry farming and even grew water-intensive crops, like watermelons and cantaloupes (6). College-educated Black women like Sarah Fountain taught the children of Dearfield and improved literacy rates in the community (7). Fountain described Dearfield as a pleasant and welcoming community, recalling events like “card playing on Saturday nights and basket suppers” (8). Black folks of Denver would travel north to stay in Dearfield, creating a cultural hub for both rural and urban Black Americans.
The town’s heyday ended when environmental disaster struck the Colorado plains. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s dashed the community’s plans to build a canning factory and establish a college in Dearfield. The Great Depression and severe drought drove Dearfield’s residents away by the 1940s, leaving Jackson and his niece as its last inhabitants (9). Eventually, Dearfield became a ghost town (10).
Why Preserving Dearfield Matters
This town expanded opportunities for Black Westerners in the decades that followed the Civil War. Black stories often go untold, and sites related to Black history are often not preserved. The phenomenon is so pervasive that it has its own name: the Preservation Diversity Gap (PDG). The National Park Service has been working to lessen this gap over time, but acknowledges that, currently, “preservation’s core institutions remain largely unchanged” (11). There has been recent success in NPS minority representation: On February 14th, the senate unanimously voted on the Amache Historic Site Act, which will make Camp Amache a nationally protected historic site and further represent Asian American history (12). The NPS organization is slowly righting its wrongs, and Dearfield could be its next step.
The NPS manages 423 units in total, but only 14% of those units are devoted to telling Black stories (13). Of these, the Black stories that the NPS’s current units commemorate are often about Black struggle, oppression, and suffering, while stories of Black success are mainly attributed to one person who “beat the cultural norm, by all odds” (14). Colorado representatives Joe Neguse and Ken Buck introduced legislation to Congress that would make Dearfield a unit of the National Parks Service. A story that celebrates an entire Black community’s joy and ingenuity deserves to be supported, protected, and, above all, told.
A small group of historians, scholars, and those personally connected to Dearfield’s history have been doing all they can to preserve and learn from the site’s remains. Drs. Bob Brunswig and George Junne organize an annual “Dearfield Day” involving local volunteer help. The Black American West Museum negotiated with Clayton Homes to save the site in 2019, when Clayton Homes planned to build affordable housing near the town’s historic core. Local universities and institutions, including the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State University, and others, banded together to create the Dearfield Preservation Partnership (15). The partnership and the museum were able to come to an agreement with Clayton Homes, and persuaded the company to participate in a land swap and build on a different site. Still, the constant threat of development hangs over Dearfield, unless it can be further protected (16).
Most recently, the NPS African American Civil Rights Grants Program awarded Drs. Brunswig and Junne $497,776 to pursue the Dearfield Dream Project, an effort to study and preserve the town’s history (17). The grant will provide funding to stabilize two buildings on the property: the Jackson House, built by town founder OT Jackson in 1917, and the filling station, built by Jackson in 1919 (18). This work will include factors from hazardous material testing to roof rebuilding. Brunswig and Junne’s ultimate goal for the ghost town is to “turn it into a seasonal education and research center” where students and guests could learn about Dearfield’s history through tours and archaeological field schools (19). With the NPS’s sustained support, this goal could, at last, be within reach.
Even with grant funds and the efforts of a dedicated community behind it, Dearfield has continued to crumble. With no one to maintain the site, it will remain exposed to the effects of the harsh plains climate, under threat of development, and vulnerable to trespassers. Historic sites like Dearfield require permanent care and maintenance so that they can continue to share their stories for future generations. Dearfield tells a rich history of Black communal success. Preserving it as an NPS unit will fill a hole in the agency’s telling of Black history. The current work being conducted by academics and volunteers showcases the public’s passion for and willingness to invest in the site. With Dearfield, the National Park Service has an opportunity to preserve the town’s history before it becomes another example of the preservation diversity gap.
– Lauren Hennessey, PLHC Intern
Equal Justice Initiative, “The Widespread Failure to Preserve African American History,” January 21, 2020, https://eji.org/news/widespread-failure-to-preserve-african-american-history/.
Deanna Herbert, “UNC Awarded Grant for Dearfield Dream Project,” University of Northern Colorado, August 6, 2021, https://www.unco.edu/news/articles/dearfield-grant-2021.aspx#:~:text=UNC’s%20Dearfield%20project%20was%20one,African%20American%20struggle%20for%20equality.
 Colorado Encyclopedia, s.v. “Dearfield,” last modified June 2, 2017, https://coloradoencyclopedi a.org/article/dearfield.
 Charles Nuckolls, “Remnants of a Dream: The Story of Dearfield Colorado,” Vimeo, 2019, https://vimeo.com/318819103.
 Nuckolls, “Remnants of a Dream.”
 Morgan McKenzie, “’The History Is Bigger than All of Us’: Dearfield Day Focuses on History, Preservation of Past Black Settlement,” Greeley Tribune, October 4, 2021, https://www.greeleytr ibune.com/2021/10/04/the-history-is-bigger-than-all-of-us-dearfield-day-focuses-on-history-preservation-of-past-black-settlement/.
 “Dearfield Colony,” Colorado Preservation, Inc., accessed February 8, 2022, http://coloradopreservation.org/programs/endangered-places/endangered-places archives/dearfield-colony/.
 Colorado Encyclopedia, “Dearfield.”
 Nuckolls, “Remnants of a Dream.”
 Colorado Encyclopedia, “Dearfield.”
 Google Maps, “Dearfield, Colorado 80644”, Google, accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.google.com/maps/place/Dearfield,+COfirstname.lastname@example.org,104.2687221,15.25z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x876dd3144faada23:0xe416e87b987f4731!8m2!3d40.2905364!4d-104.2593953.
 Ned Kaufman, “Historic Places and the Diversity Deficit in Heritage Conservation.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 2004. https://home1.nps.gov/CRMJournal/summer2004/article3.html.
 Megan Verlee, “Amache Historic Site Will Join the National Park System after Bill Passes Final Significant Hurdle in Congress,” CPR News, Colorado Public Radio, February 14, 2022, https://w ww.cpr.org/2022/02/14/amache-historic-site-will-join-the-national-park-system-after-bill-passes-final-significant-hurdle-in-congress/.
 Ned Kaufman, “Historic Places.”
 U.S. Department of Interior, Dearfield, NPSGallery National Register Digital Asset Management System, National Parks Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/95001002.
 Rae Ellen Bichell, “Housing Development Planned to Encroach on Historic Black Settlement,” KUNC, NPR for Northern Colorado, June 26, 2019, https://www.kunc.org/community/2019-06-26/housing-development-planned-to-encroach-on-historic-black-settlement.
 U.S. Department of Interior, Dearfield.
 Anne Delaney, “University of Northern Colorado Receives National Park Service Grant for Dearfield Dream Project,” Greeley Tribune, August 8, 2021, https://www.greeleytribune.com/2021/08/08/university-of-northern-colorado-receives-national-park-service-grant-for-dearfield-dream-project/
 Anne Delaney, “University of Northern Colorado.”
 Morgan McKenzie, “’The History Is Bigger.”