Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dear, Oh Dearfield

Driving along Hwy 34 between Greeley and Wiggins, a thick fog hung in the air.  Having always wanted to explore a ghost town in a fog setting, I was now even more excited for what lie ahead, the town of Dearfield.
Over 105 years ago, Oliver Toussaint Jackson(O.T. Jackson) had a dream of setting up an African American colony in Colorado.  After four years of searching(including looking at homestead tracts in Elbert, Larimer and Weld Counties), he decided on a location about 30 miles southeast of Greeley.   He purchased 320 acres of land and on May 5, 1910, Dearfield was born.
Why is it called Dearfield? Well, I am glad you asked.  The name Dearfield was suggested by Denver physician and one of the early settlers, Dr. J.H.P. Westbrook, as the land would be very dear to their hearts.
When Jackson initially founded Dearfield, he had the full support of the Colorado chapter of the National Negro Business League, but when Booker T. Washington, who was the national president, refused to endorse the project, they subsequently withdrew their support as well.  This would not deter Jackson, and he and a few other families began the settlement on their own.
By the time the first winter rolled around, there were a total of seven families who made up the town.  Only two of which actually had wooden houses.  The other five families lived in tents dug into holes in the ground.   And the first winter challenged the settlers. According to Jackson, "the suffering was intense...buffalo chips and sagebrush were our chief fuel.  Three of our horses died from starvation and the other three were too weak to pull the empty wagon." Even with the hardships, they persevered and the settlement lived on.
By 1915, Dearfield had gone from seven families living in tents(and two in houses) to 27 families living in wooden cabins.  By 1920, there were 700 residents, a school, a grocery store, a boarding house, a restaurant and two churches(one Methodist and one Baptist).  A canning factory and college were planned, but a series of major historical events were not to take too kindly to the town. The initial settlers came from cities in Colorado, but once word spread of Dearfield's success, blacks from as far away as Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia came to settle.
Before we get to the decline of the town, let's talk a little about the town and people who lived there.
The families that lived in Dearfield made their living primarily through agriculture.  Being an arid climate and being absent of irrigation, the farmers used a process of "dryland" farming to make their living.  Dryland farming was where the farmers would rely on precipitation to grow their crops.  The main crops that were grown in Dearfield were winter wheat, potatoes and sugar beets.  The dryland farming technique yielded just enough crops to sustain the town, as well as provided enough extra for selling at the local railroad station. According to Dr. George Junne, professor and chair of African Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, some of the men in the community worked in places such as Denver and Boulder during to raise more money for equipment, while the women tended to the families and fields.  The men would then return for the weekends to help more.
At it's peak, Dearfield had over 15,000 acres in cultivation.  The town was worth more than $750,000, which equates to over $10 million in today's standards.  Then came the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
Even though the town peaked about 1920,  the end of World War One in 1918 started the beginning of the end for Dearfield.  Throughout the war, there was a demand for the crops being grown, which helped Dearfield's economy thrive.  The wars end saw a drop in demand for crops, which brought about an end to the once steady growth of the town.  As the years marched on, the Dust Bowl found it's way to Weld County in 1929.  Farming became much harder.  Families began to default on their mortgages and equipment loans.  One by one, the families sold their farms.  By 1940, only 12 people still lived in the once thriving town.
O.T. Jackson went to work trying to turn the situation positive.  During World War II, he tried to sell the town to Governor Ralph Carr for use as an internment camp for Japanese prisoners of war, but that failed. He then offered the townsite for sale, but this failed too.  On February 18, 1948, O.T. Jackson passed away in Greeley.
Jackson's niece, Jenny Jackson, was the towns last resident. She lived in Dearfield until her death in 1978,  With her passing, the town became a ghost.
Though many have not even heard of the town, Dearfield has a significant place in Colorado's history.  According to Colorado State Historian Bill Convery, Dearfield, "represents a dream, and Colorado is full of dreamers.  For O.T. Jackson and the citizens of Dearfield, that dream of self-sufficiency was enough for them to risk everything they had built up in order to achieve that dream." Convery also points out, "how challenging it can be to live in Colorado's environment. It wasn't racism that brought Dearfield down. It was the same agricultural drought and depression that wiped out hundreds of thousands of other farmers on the Great Plains in the 1920s and 30s. Drought is colorblind. That is the bittersweet story of Colorado, of achieving something very special for a very brief period of time and being challenged by the land to sustain it. That's a very Colorado story."
Pulling into Dearfield, the thick fog still hung around.  Quite a drastic opposite feeling from the arid, dry Dust Bowl that killed the town almost 100 years ago.  I met up with my buddy Zach from Hanging Negatives Photography.  We walked through what remains of the town.  A heavy silence and stillness fills the air.  Inside the buildings, you can feel the history. It felt like stepping through a time warp and going back in time.  The atmosphere is filled with the heaviness of a town that had such a bright future, a future full of major ambitions. Now all that remains are a handful of buildings and a few foundations.  A few modern houses are spread out around the townsite, but they didn't seem to mind us taking photos.  After having been wanting to visit the town for over a year, I was very happy to finally see and experience it for myself.  Welcome to Dearfield.

Here are some good links for reading more on Dearfield:

                                                               A historic photo of Dearfield.

My photos: 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Orphaned Memories, Remembering A Place That is No More

In my backyard, there was a location known as "The Orphanage" or the "Brighton Orphanage." It was  a collection of seven buildings sitting abandoned in a field.  Three were demolished, but the main house and three other buildings still stood.  It was a small location even though there were multiple buildings.  The long, tree lined drive up made the location feel ominous for it's small size.

Unfortunately, in January of 2016, whomever owned the property decided that the buildings had seen their last new year, and they were demolished.  I was fortunate enough to be able to explore the location twice during the day, as well as two more times at night.  I drove by it multiple times, and this is a location that always came up when I'd share stories of my explorations with others.   I am incredibly saddened that this location is no more.  Earlier this week, I had received word from a friend that The Orphanage might have been demolished.  Even though he had never been there himself, he said he drove down the road and saw the tree lined drive, but only saw an empty field and a couple backhoes where he thought The Orphanage was supposed to be.  Refusing to believe that it had been demolished, I reasoned that he had just looked in the wrong spot.  Driving over to explore The Orphanage today, I was shocked and saddened to see exactly what my friend had described.  A tree lined drive leading to an open field, now occupied by a small pile of rubble and two backhoes instead of the incredible buildings that once made up one of my local haunts.

There is VERY little information about The Orphanage online.  My inquiry with the Denver Public Library netted an email response stating, "We have no records of any orphanage or similar building in Brighton, CO."  All the information I could find was a couple records of permits dating back to 1988 that hint to the locations past and use:
1988- Conditional Use Permit to allow a group home for up to a maximum of 12 foster children.
1994- Amendment to Conditional use to allow an adult women's group home for 32 dependent women and children.
1999- Appeal of an administrative decision of the Director of Planning and Development denying a request for a group home as a Use by Right.
2000- Conditional Use Permit to operate a group home with 12 beds in the A-3 Zone district.
2001- Amendment to a Conditional Use Permit to operate a group home for an additional year.
It then closed later in 2001.

Interesting history and nothing else about the location to be found.

Here is what it felt like to explore this interesting place:

Once you parked, you had a choice, do you start to the left with the main building? Or start to your right with the collection of three other buildings.

Left- You are greeted by the main building.  A few couches and cushions sit outside the door way, and the graffiti tags also add to the ominous feel of the place.  Walking up the steps and into the building, your eyes are met with a surprise, a gutted floor with ply wood and two-by-fours making up the interior.  No walls(except two to your right), no carpet, a single door further in and emptiness. Not what you would expect from the outside.  Venturing in, you see what once was a stairway to your right, leading to a section of basement.  Jumping off the floor onto the slanted dirt below, you make your way into the eastern section of the basement.   You can see the dirt and space below the floor of the main house, but there is nothing there of interest.  Peering down the hallway, you see two doors on either side and a doorway at the very end. Going into the first door on the left, you walk into an empty room. You see the wood beams that held up the wall separating this room from the far room, but the wall is gone.  You walk between the beams to the other room, there is not much there either.  Walking out that door and across the hallway, you are greeted by a familiar site.  An empty room with no wall separating it from its adjoining room, only the beams.  The only difference is that in this room, you can see where a closet had been built into the now nonexistent wall. You head to the end of the hallway and peer out the door.  A set of stairs leading up to the ground is all that is to be seen.  You turn around and head back to the main part of the house.  It seems like a disappointing exploration so far, but don't despair. You hop back up to the main floor and on the western side, you see an opening in the floor.  Walking over, you see a staircase leading down to a door.  You walk down. Opening the door, you see reminders and glimpses of the places past.  Trash and odd objects lie across the floor.  Some books, a piece of clothing, toys and other items are scattered around.  The remainders of a wall stand to your right.  Two doorways sit at the far end.  The door on the left opens to a room with a pile of wood in the middle.  Other items from the locations past sit on the floor. The door on the right leads to what once looked like a pantry or cellar.  A couple nonperishable items remain in jars on the shelves, and a wooden pallet occupies the floor in the center of the room.  Turning around, you see a door leading to a blueish room. Walking over, you look in but are greeted by another empty room.  Some papers and magazines lie around.  Having finished in the basement, you walk back upstairs and outside.

Right- You walk over to the cluster of three other buildings. The first one you come to appears to have been a garage of some sorts.  A blue/green and white wall is an interesting feature.  A small room is around a corner to the right but contains nothing but broken stone and bricks. You go back to the main room and walk to the back into the garage.  An old couch sits alone, along with an old mattress and some rubble.  The white paint on the walls is pealing, making an interesting texture and pattern.  You walk out the side door and over to one of the two smaller, wooden buildings.  The first one contains one room, with a lonely ice skate and book laying forgotten on the floor.  You would out the door and over to the second building.  This one appeared to be the tool room or shop of some kind. The first room is wide open with a tall ceiling.  Heading through the doorway at the back, you enter a small room with what looks to be a tool bench and tool shelf.  Having completed your personal tour of the three buildings, you walk back out to your car and get inside.  You look around you again and ponder on what went on here.  You slowly head back out the tree lined drive and head off, the memory of this odd yet incredible location seared into your mind.

The Orphanage might be demolished, but it will never be forgotten.  It shall live on in memory of the explorers who were able to experience it, through this blog post and through photos taken and shared online.

She gone.  The tree lined drive that once led to The Orphanage.