Barney Ford: Plantation slave to businessman |

Barney Ford: Plantation slave to businessman

BRECKENRIDGE – The story of Barney Ford – a plantation slave who rose to the status of a prominent businessman – is one of adversity, strength and determination.

Ford, a light-skinned, blue-eyed mulatto, was born into slavery in Virginia and moved to a North Carolina plantation before he reached the age of 17. His mother drowned trying to escape to a meeting with representatives of the Underground Railroad.

Ford’s master sold him to a slaveholder in Georgia, where the young man drove hogs and mules from Kentucky to Columbus, Ga., labored in gold fields, worked on cotton barges and cooked. His master later moved to St. Louis and sold Ford to a Mississippi River boat owner where he worked as a cook and steward.

Ford escaped in Quincy, Ill., and made his way to Chicago via the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was the secret operation that helped people escape slavery in the south and pursue freedom in the northern states and Canada.

Ford met his wife, Julia Wagner, in Chicago. According to Breckenridge town historian Rebecca Waugh, the young couple took their last name from a pioneer railroad engine named the Lancelot Ford they saw in a railyard.

In 1851, Ford decided to try his luck in the California gold fields. The couple traveled by boat via Panama, but Ford fell ill in Graytown, Nicaragua. The two decided to settle there and open a hotel and restaurant. Racial tension in the area climaxed when a white river pilot killed a black resident. The townsfolk retaliated, and Americans stepped in and destroyed the town.

One source says Ford made it to Bodie, Calif., now a ghost town, but eventually the couple returned to Chicago, and in 1860, moved to Mountain City – near today’s Central City. Later that year, they moved to Breckenridge – then spelled “Breckinridge” – and opened a boarding house for miners at the northwest corner of Ski Hill Road and Main Street.

Ford, who dabbled in mining, tried to stake a claim on a hillside overlooking town, but territorial law prevented him from claiming his share of the mining venture because he was black.

One unsubstantiated story indicates white miners flocked to Ford’s claim believing he’d hidden gold stores on the side of the hill. They named the hill Nigger Hill; the townsfolk changed the name to Barney Ford Hill in 1964.

The Fords returned to Denver in 1861 and opened a restaurant and barber shop on Blake Street. They replaced the building when it burned down in 1863. The couple returned to Chicago in 1865, Waugh said, primarily because territorial law also prohibited blacks from voting.

Two years later, Ford opened a restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyo., then returned to Denver in 1871 and bought back his Blake Street resort and used it as a financial stepping stone to open the Inter-Ocean Hotel at Blake and 16th streets – a building that still stands today. He later built a second Inter-Ocean hotel in Cheyenne.

One source indicates Ford was instrumental in convincing U.S. Congressmen to reject a bid for Colorado to join the Union because the bid did not indicate that black people could vote. Waugh said she’s not sure if that’s true, but agrees that Ford was active in the fight for African-American rights in Colorado.

In 1879, the Fords moved to Breckenridge and built a small house that is now home to The Photo Shop at Adams Avenue and Main Street. In 1882, Ford hired Elias Nashold to build a home at 111 S. Main St.

Ford also opened a restaurant, Ford’s Chop Stand, which was later renamed the Saddlerock.

At the same time, he was busy operating his businesses in Denver.

“He was considered a very prominent businessman,” Waugh said. “The community accepted him as being a very good restaurateur. His mulatto skin and beautiful blue eyes helped him a lot. I’d be surprised if a lot of people knew he was black. He had the same aspirations as any other middle-class or upper-class white. He came to Breckenridge because there was opportunity. And he certainly left his legacy on the Colorado environment.”

In 1890, the Fords sold their home to the Curtice family for $1,200 and returned to Denver; Ford died Dec. 27, 1902. A stained-glass portrait of him hangs in the state Capitol.

Waugh hopes to uncover more details and clarify conflicting stories about Ford’s life as she begins research this summer.

“We’ll be a lot smarter about a lot of this,” she said.

“But some of this stuff we’re never going to know. Our information is only as good as our sources.”


Chronology of the Barney Ford House

1882: Barney Ford hires Elias Nashold to build a home at 111 S. Main St. They add a restaurant, Ford’s Chop Stand – later called Saddlerock – on the corner.

1890: The Fords sell the house to the Curtice family for $1,200.

Turn of century: Addition built on back to include indoor bathroom, bedroom and loft.

1896: Ford’s Chop Stand burns down.

1905: Curtice family sells home to the town physician, Dr. Condon.

1912: Dr. Condon sells it to Henry Alber for $2,000.

1921: Alber sells it to Thad and Prudence Bailey.

Date unknown: Bailey’s sell it to Isabella Black for $700.

1946: Black sells it to Robert and Lois Theobald, parents of Robin Theobald.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or

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