In the 1920s, Dearfield, Colorado was a thriving farming community that had been built up over a few years, thanks to the boundless energy of an entrepreneur named Oliver T. Jackson and the passage of the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. It was almost entirely African American.
NPR takes a look back today the brief but bustling history of Dearfield:
Starting in 1910, Dearfield began attracting hundreds of black homesteaders from across the South, the Midwest and the eastern portion of the Plains. They came for opportunity. At its height in the early 1920s, 700 residents lived in town, with churches, a school, a blacksmith shop, a dance hall and a restaurant. And nearly all of the residents were black.
The community sustained itself on farming, taking advantage of the relatively abundant rains at the time. They had bumper crops – strawberries, squash, wheat – for more than a decade.
“It pulled together primarily African-Americans who were interested in owning their own homes and their own farms,” explained George Junne, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. It was the brainchild of Jackson, a restauranteur who “had a really exciting vision,” said Jay Trask of the University of Northern Colorado’s archives. “And I think it was a vision shared by a lot of African-American folks in Denver. There was a desire to create an African-American community, an agricultural community that would be their own.”
Jackson promoted the town relentlessly, always ready to talk to a magazine or a newspaper. Which is not to say he didn’t make time for other enterprises:
“For a while, this town was known as ‘Beerfield’ because he was bootlegging here,” Junne says. “He needed to make money to keep things going. The people all around here knew about it and they gave the nickname.”
The piece notes that part of what is interesting about Dearfield’s story is that relations with surrounding white communities were relatively harmonious considering these were the dark days of Jim Crow. Neighbors would come to the town’s dance hall and black and white couples would share the floor. Which, to Junne, goes to a larger point about the history of the West: “I think this whole thing about the solitary Westerner is a bit overdone because you had to rely on your neighbors.”
Unfortunately, it’s now a ghost town—the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl made it too hard to survive.