By Kevin Strong
DEARFIELD, Colo. (CBS4) – In its heyday, the Eastern Plains town of Dearfield was the cream of the crop when it came to Colorado Agriculture.
"Almost anybody who was African American knew about Dearfield," says George Junne, a professor of African studies at the University of Northern Colorado. "Dearfield was in Black magazines and other media, and it was the most famous of the Black farming communities in the U.S.
The town of Dearfield got its start in 1910 when African American promoter O.T. Jackson began selling plots of land to other African American farmers who had begun migrating west.
"The draw out here was not only for those who were experienced farmers, but was for people to have the opportunity to own their own land" explains Junne. Denver was a segregated city, so Dearfield gave people of color a place where they could thrive.
And thrive, they did. The town of Dearfield became very successful, hosting harvest festivals that drew folks from all around. The town boasted its own schools, churches, stores, and a population nearing 300 residents. But the success was not to last. Like many Eastern Plains agricultural towns, Dearfield succumbed to the dustbowl, and by the early 30s, most had left. O.T. Jackson remained, selling off houses which people moved to other locations. By the end of the 1940s, very little remained of the original town.
"It was pretty much forgotten about by many people."
Junne learned about the town shortly after he moved to the area in the 1980s. That ignited a flame inside of him to see the story of Dearfield rekindled and brought back to life. He partnered with fellow UNC professor Bob Brunswig and the Black America West Museum to bring attention back to this site.
Brunswig saw the site as a perfect opportunity to teach his archeology students without needing to drive for hours into the mountains.
"Very quickly, these kids understand that these places were created by people just like them," says Brunswig. "Once that light turns on, and they understand what was here in the past, they get excited about it."
The efforts of the two professors and the museum got the site listed on Colorado Preservation Incorporated's "Most Endangered Places" list in 1999. That bolstered efforts for grants and began a slow march towards putting Dearfield back on the map.
"We didn't know what we had. We knew a little bit of the history of the colony and townsite. Now we know much more."
Brunswig says each visit brings better understanding.
"It's a process of moving from 'Wow, I'm not sure what I'm looking at' to 'I understand a little bit better who was here and what was here.'"
Time is still a powerful foe. Since the pair began researching Dearfield, the lunch counter building has nearly collapsed. Vandalism threatens the two other remaining buildings, the gas station and O.T. Jackson's home. Chain link fences help keep people at bay, but they're not 100% secure. Still, their tireless efforts have begun to bear fruit.
The National Park Service recently awarded the site a $500,000 grant to cosmetically restore the gas station and the Jackson house. Congressmen Ken Buck (R) Colorado's 4th Congressional District, and Joe Neguse (D) Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, have recently introduced legislation in Congress aimed at studying the feasibility of bringing Dearfield under the umbrella of the National Park Service. That would open the door for even more funding for more restoration.
For Brunswig and Junne, seeing the national spotlight return to Dearfield fuels their passion even further.
"I didn't think anything was going to come of it," says Junne. "Now Dearfield is starting to have a second life."
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