Breckenridge celebrates Barney Ford’s 200th birthday
Having escaped from slavery, built businesses in Colorado and advocated for civil rights, Barney Ford is one of Colorado’s most beloved pioneers
Though Barney Ford’s life was impressive, there’s still many local Summit County residents — and Coloradans — who don’t know much about him. That’s why the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is taking this year, Ford’s 200th birthday, to celebrate his achievements and share his story.
In the late 1800s, Ford operated a couple of restaurants in Breckenridge and built one of the most beautiful houses the town had seen at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue. He was born on Jan. 22, 1822, and years after his life ended, his legacy got the attention of filmmakers and both local and state leaders.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jared Polis declared Feb. 1, 2022, would be Barney Ford Day to kick off Black History Month. Around the same time, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance visited Breckenridge Elementary to celebrate Ford, and it also celebrated with a new exhibit in the Barney Ford House Museum. The Hearthstone Restaurant offered an oyster special to commemorate his memory and he was also featured at the 2022 International Snow Sculpture Championships this year.
This isn’t the first time Ford’s gotten recognition though. In 2018, Ford was inducted into the Colorado Tourism Hall of Fame, and in 2021, Rocky Mountain PBS premiered “Colorado Experience: Mr. Barney Ford,” an hourlong documentary about Ford’s life and legacy.
So who is Barney Ford and what is his legacy? According to Larissa O’Neil, executive director at the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, Ford is most well-known for his resilience and his fight for civil rights. The alliance manages the Barney Ford House Museum and O’Neil laid out what his life was like.
Ford was born into slavery in Virginia in 1822. O’Neil said experts believe his mother was enslaved and his father was potentially the plantation owner, making Ford of mixed race. As a young child, he was sold several times and was raised on what was likely a cotton plantation in South Carolina for most of his young life. At some point, he was educated.
“We know he was self-taught,” O’Neil said. “We know enslaved people were not allowed to go to school, to have the same rights as their white counterparts, but we know he learned to read and write.”
In his teens and early 20s, he was sold and traveled to various states before he was sold to someone who brought him to Illinois on business. At the time, Illinois was a free state and Ford managed to escape when he was 26. O’Neil said he likely had the help of the underground railroad, which he later became involved with, and once he got away, he wrote an impactful letter to his former master explaining how he deserved his own freedom.
Once free, he met his wife, Julia, in Chicago and they had a child. Soon after, he headed to California to join the gold rush and took the safer route by traveling through Nicaragua where he ended up staying and opening a hotel, his first successful venture. A few years later, political unrest grew and he left to go back to Chicago.
After a few years, he traveled to Colorado, Wyoming and California, where he started various ventures. He was led west by the Pike’s Peak gold rush and tried mining in Central City which didn’t go well. He came back to Denver and opened a barber shop and restaurant, both of which became successful. When the Great Fire of 1863 struck the city, his ventures burned to the ground. Within four months, he had rebuilt and paid of his loan quickly.
Ford’s time in Breckenridge occurred when the town was just starting to get its bearings. The town was established in 1859 and two years later, he opened a boarding house.
He began traveling between Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming, and during this time, he was one of 100 African Americans who petitioned against Colorado statehood because the bill did not provide an opportunity for universal suffrage. He also ran for the Colorado Territorial Legislature, which he lost.
Eventually, he came back to Breckenridge in his late 50s, in 1879, and started a restaurant called Ford’s Chop House which did very well. A few years later, he built his house — now the museum — which was one of the finest in the town at the time. He opened a second restaurant before retiring to Denver years later.
Dick Carleton, owner of Hearthstone Restaurant, decided to offer an oyster special earlier this month in memory of Ford, who was popular for selling oysters at Ford’s Chop House in the 1800s.
“He overcame numerous different challenges in his career and his history, including slavery when he was younger,” Carleton said. “I encourage all to read more about his story and to learn about what an impressive gentleman he was.”
The Barney Ford House Museum is located at 111 E. Washington Ave. in Breckenridge and is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
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