About a century ago, African-American settlements sprang up across the West. Now, one of those sites in northern Colorado is set to host new houses.
The Black American West Museum, based in Denver, owns a number of properties in what used to be the town of Dearfield, Colorado. But a national homebuilding company, CMH Homes, Inc., also known as Clayton Homes, is now taking steps to turn other parts of the town into new residences.
Archaeologist Bob Brunswig with the University of Northern Colorado has been working on Dearfield for about a decade. He says one of the parcels purchased by Clayton holds the ruins of what used to be the general store, which collapsed about 15 years ago.
“There’s no doubt about it, they’re going to scrape that building,” he says. “And we haven’t even been able to survey it. We don’t know what’s on the surface, we don’t know what’s below the surface.”
A spokesperson with the county confirmed Clayton’s development plans and said they’ve placed a demo home on site. County documents show activity earlier this year to rejigger property lines and identify locations for future wells and septic systems. The company, which purchased about a dozen parcels in the ghost town for a combined $100,000, was unavailable to comment.
Dearfield was one of many black settlements that started around the turn of the century. At its zenith, the greater farming colony reportedly had a population of about 700, with a dance hall, school, restaurant and forge.
“It was a much broader experience than just the small townsite of Dearfield,” says Brunswig. “It was a very large farming community that was part of the back-to-the-land movement at the turn of the last century, where African Americans decided that the only way that they were going to have some equity -- political, social, economic equity -- was to go back and farm their own land, create their own communities, create a self-sufficiency movement. That’s how they were going to generate the next generation’s ability to advance and progress and be economically stable.”
Residents left in the mid-to-late 1920s, largely due to poor farming conditions and the souring economy.
In addition to losing historical evidence, Brunswig worries the new developments will result in more traffic and vandalism to the National Historic District. He and others recently received funding to stabilize some of the existing structures, and plan to put up chain-link fences to protect them from damage. Brunswig says a number of universities and local institutions have banded together under what’s known as the Dearfield Preservation Partnership, including the Black American West Museum, the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of Nebraska.
“We have tried in every way we possibly can to figure out how to discourage them from building there. It is a National Register Historic District,” says Brunswig. “But the problem is, under the [National] Park Service, the National Register Historic Districts on private land have no protection. There’s no law that says you can’t do this.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.
This story was updated June 24, 2019 with a correction. CMH Homes purchased properties at the Dearfield Townsite for a combined $100,000. The story originally said the company purchased them for $100,000 each.