Blink, and you’ll miss it. Just off the ribbon of Highway 34 stretching east of Greeley is the skeleton of a once-booming community. Welcome to Dearfield, Colorado.

Every fall, haunted building tours in Northern Colorado emerge in the spirit of Halloween. Recently, two University of Northern Colorado professors, Dr. George H. Junne Jr., Africana Studies, and Dr. Robert H. Brunswig, Anthropology, led a group tour at Dearfield Day. The tour of the hallowed town, however, doesn’t come with the cheap thrill of a scare, but rather an account of Colorado’s cultural history; one of racial inequality and of self-reliance.

The town of Dearfield was founded by O.T. Jackson in the early 1900s, when African Americans settled the land as a farming colony. Dearfield’s settlers followed the words of Booker T. Washington: “Get a home of your own. Get some property…get some of the substance for yourself.” The plains east of Greeley, which would become so “dear” (thus the name) to African Americans, provided them the opportunity to build a flourishing homestead of their own.

As you walk down the desolate dirt road, once Washington Avenue, it’s hard to imagine that with each step, you’re walking down what was once the main street of a bustling community of nearly 40 buildings. By the early 1920s, the town had a dance hall, school, hotel, two churches, and the population had reached nearly 300 people. Though most of the structures have not withstood the test of time, you can still peek into the dark, boarded up buildings that once hosted the local gas station and hotel.

Located on the plains, Dearfield encountered flooding and high winds, and endured harsh, deadly, winters. Many of the men returned to their jobs in Denver during the week, leaving women to work the fields and run the town.

“It shows you how much people really wanted to own land and farm,” said Dr. Junne.

The homestead met its demise by the late 1920s, when the Dustbowl and Great Depression hit Weld County. The last remaining resident of Dearfield passed long ago, leaving behind the cluster of decrepit shacks.

To most of Northern Colorado, Dearfield has sat forgotten on the side of the road for the last half century. To some, however, the story of Dearfield is too much of an important piece of history to be deserted. Dr. Junne and Dr. Brunswig, along with a team of partners, make up the Dearfield Dream Project, a research group dedicated to preserving Dearfield through archaeological excavations.

What you walk away with after a trip to Dearfield is a great sense of appreciation. The structures you see diminishing before you were constructed by the hands of Americans who dreamed of building a life without racial persecution; a place where they could work, dance, raise children and live to be old, just like everyone else. It’s unfortunate that the town was short-lived, but it’s truly a symbol of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the American Dream.

Dearfield makes you think a little bit deeper about every rundown shack you pass on the side of the road. Everything has a story; this is just one.

Note: Dearfield's structures are owned by the Black American West Museum, and entering any of the buildings is strictly prohibited. Please visit the town with respect, and to request a more in-depth tour, contact the museum. 

 

Dearfield Trivia:

The Dearfield Dream Research Project has uncovered bullets, buttons, bones, bottles and… fine china.

Dearfield was commonly misspelled “Deerfield,” which can even be seen on an old sign which led into the town.

Dearfield residents made hooch, which they would flavor with the strawberries they grew. Today, Dearfield Ale is available at Crabtree Brewing Company in honor of the town.

In the 1990s, the building that was once the gas station became home to a retired police officer.

O.T. Jackson’s home has undergone $78,000 of preservation.

African Americans would hop trains to get to Dearfield on weekends so they could dance, because they were not permitted to in Denver.

Dearfield residents used to walk miles to the Platte River to collect ice chunks, which they would then pack into straw to make what we would call a “refrigerator.”

Dr. Brunswig said the research team is still looking for where the outhouse was. “Because the outhouse has lots of cool stuff. You always lose something or throw something down the outhouse,” he said.