Dearfield Colorado: victim of the Dust Bowl

Anna Aughenbaugh
Anna AughenbaughThis store was owned by Oliver Tousaint Jackson and his wife, Minerva.

Having cabin fever when the weather was too bad in the mountains made my husband, Allen, and myself opt for a ride to a prairie ghost town we had heard about. We stopped at the Greeley Museum to get directions to Dearfield from Peggy Ford. She brought out a huge folder filled with newspaper clippings that told of the town that Oliver Tousaint Jackson and his wife, Minerva, envisioned as a farming community for African-Americans just off Highway 34 east of Greeley, Colo.

It was interesting to read about Mr. Jackson, who was born in 1862 and migrated to Colorado in 1887, began farming in 1894 and became an aide to several Colorado governors. Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery” inspired Mr. Jackson to homestead 130 acres in 1910 to incorporate the town of Dearfield. He advertised for Negro families to join him in making a self-sufficient community. By 1911, seven families had arrived and, by 1921, the population had grown to 700.

The families persevered through some hard times. Severe blizzards, grasshopper plagues, drought that caused the soil to turn to dust, and coupled with the Great Depression, caused their dreams to fade and die. Most of the families had to move on as the vast dry plains began to reclaim Dearfield.

Mr. Jackson’ s niece, Jenny, inherited his town when he died in 1949. She kept hoping that others would be attracted to farming there, so she hung onto the gas station and store until 1953 when she finally gave up being able to sell the land.

My hubby called my attention to the time and reminded me that our goal that day was to actually see the ghost town. We thanked Peggy for getting the information for us and headed out of town looking forward to this adventure.

We were glad to see the sign for Dearfield in time to turn into the town. Allen drove to the end of the road, then back to a parking spot. We walked amongst the foundations of homes that once housed families. We talked of the dreams they had, the singing and laughter, and the aromas of meals cooked and served in better days.

The Jackson family home is locked and a sign tells that it is being restored by the Colorado Historical Society. We peered through the new plexiglass windows to see the lathe and plaster walls, full of holes, a wringer washer in the living room and peeling paint that reminded us of the song, “This Old House.” A blue, rusted out VW Bug sits next to the house, its hood trunk open to the elements, like a huge mouth gasping for breath.

Abandoned, trashed house trailers, some completely burned, covered a large portion of the town. The metal in the burn piles clanked in the wind, accentuating the empty remoteness. The eerie sound gave us a feeling of the hopelessness that the residents must have felt before they abandoned their homes.

Hawthorne trees with inch-long thorns grew like a thick spindly, brambly forest protecting car parts, cans, bottles, and broken dishes that littered the area around one deteriorating building. As we meandered through them, their thorns grabbed at our sweaters, as if warning us away.

The diner, store and gas station sit in complete disrepair near the highway. The roof and chimney bricks litter the floors and counters, the weathered boards lay at odd angles, making it impossible to do more than take a peak into the past of a once thriving business. The church, school and post office have disappeared completely, taking with them the sound of gospel hymns, chalk scraping on a blackboard, and conversations when mail was picked up that had kept the residents in touch with loved ones, and brought discouraging news of the deepening depression.

A fierce wind came up, sandblasting us with the dust that has never recovered from the Dust Bowl days. Tumbleweeds blew across our path as we headed back to the car, reminding us of movies of desolate Western towns. All that was missing was the lone dog barking.

There are a few new homes, built on lots that have been sold off piecemeal. Perhaps these new residents will bring life back to O.T. Jackson’s town here on the Colorado plains. We opted for the scenic route home through the tiny towns of Orchard, Goodrich and Weldona, and past the Pawnee Buttes to Keota. We wandered around the monuments dating back to the 1800s in the Home of Peace Cemetery. The dates gave a history of families burying infants and young children, military men, some of whom were buried in other countries where they had died, and some who had lived to be 100 years old.

Scenic Byway 120 west took us past winter wheat greening up the fields, lots of abandoned old houses, tumbleweed caught in the fences, providing a natural windbreak for the top soil, and a broken wooden windmill. The sign for the end of the Pawnee Pioneer Trail at Ault made us think more of the hardships the hardy people who came west endured in their quest for a better life.

We wondered what those pioneers would think if they were with us as we crossed over Interstate 25 and later entered the hustle and bustle of Fort Collins. The slower pace of bygone days holds an appeal that urges us to simplify, or maybe not.