N. Colorado town a monument to possibility
KERSEY ” Those who settled Dearfield nearly a century ago felt the same tug to scratch out a good life from hard turf and harsh conditions as pioneers who went generations before.
“For many, this was their last chance to own something, to live the American Dream,” said La Wanna Larson, who is leading an effort to preserve what is left of one of the first ” and, perhaps, largest ” African-American settlements in Colorado.
Larson, executive director of the Black American West Museum in Denver, said she hopes the combined efforts of local officials and volunteers will save the decaying husks of what was once a vibrant farming town of 700 about 30 miles east of Greeley.
“This town is in huge peril,” Larson said. “It will not stand another winter.”
A key ally is Weld County Commissioner Bill Garcia, who became enthralled with the Dearfield story as a student at the University of Northern Colorado in the early 1990s. Garcia was particularly struck by the work of Dearfield’s founder, Oliver Toussaint “O.T.” Jackson.
Jackson was a proponent of the philosophy of self-determination and economic independence espoused by educator Booker T. Washington.
“I just found the whole story fascinating,” said Garcia, who began efforts to save Dearfield this year.
Soon, he was working with Greeley Museums, several other individuals and the Black American West Museum, which owns several parcels at the site thanks to a developer who handed them over, Larson said.
“Dearfield is an important part of Weld County history and, really, the history of us all,” Garcia said. “And it’s important we keep it for other generations.”
In fact, Larson said, Dearfield is the ultimate American story, complete with a hopeful beginning and sad ending.
Jackson used his own money to buy land for Dearfield and promoted the area to other prospective buyers. He named it so because the land he coveted was dear to his heart, Larson said.
Seven African-American homesteaders made claims on the land in 1910 and started out with just the barest of necessities.
“The soil was sandy, and it was bitterly cold in the winter, and the summers were brutally hot,” she said. “But it was their land.”
Early residents lived in tents, dugouts and even caves. But in 10 years, Dearfield had grown to 700 people and boasted a church, schoolhouse, filling station, lunchroom and dance pavilion.
Farmers grew hay and alfalfa, and raised poultry and livestock. When they had a surplus of crops, they sold them for a profit, Larson said.
But like other small farming towns, Dearfield almost literally blew away during the Dust Bowl years. Jackson’s niece, Jenny Jackson, remained in Dearfield as its last resident until 1973, Larson said.
The site has received historic designation, but the three remaining structures ” including a lunch counter ” need shoring up.
Volunteers have been working on the site for the past few months with the hope that a monument might be installed to mark the town’s 100th anniversary, Larson said.
“This is not just African-American history but American history,” she said. “And it deserves to be kept alive.”
The Friends of Dearfield will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the community with a celebration from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 28.
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