Mar 062012
 
Authors: Austin Briggs

Twenty-five miles southeast of Greeley rests an old ghost town. In its heyday after World War I, Dearfield, Colo. was on one of the country’s most successful all-black farming communities. As quickly as it grew and briefly thrived, it died.

Abandoned for almost 80 years, the once bustling town has been reduced to a few structures and artifacts. These items are rapidly deteriorating, leaving little hope of ever knowing the details and rich history of one of Colorado’s only all black farming communities.

Thanks to a program started in CSU’s Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry Office, that history will be extensively documented and archived, saved in perpetuity for future generations.
Dearfield was established in 1910 by Oliver Toussaint Jackson. After a few years of harsh conditions weathered by a few hardy families, the town quickly grew to a population of 300.

By the early 1920s, Dearfield had become a vibrant and thriving community with a post office, two churches, a blacksmith shop, a dance hall and a public school.

The Great Depression and Dust Bowl brought harsh consequences to Dearfield and many other farming communities in eastern Colorado. With the land dried up, many citizens left. By 1940, only 12 people remained. Jackson lived in Dearfield until his death in 1948.

Mark Brown, director of undergraduate research and artistry at The Institute for Learning and Teaching, has brought together students from different disciplines to build a database on Dearfield’s social, economic, political and environmental history.

Graduate and undergraduate students in fields as varied as sociology, computer science, anthropology, biochemistry and history are working together on the project.

CSU is not alone in researching and cataloguing the history of Dearfield. The University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado, along with other universities outside the state and the Weld County Government are all contributing resources to the project.

One of the projects involves creating a digital 3D map of what the town would have looked like in the early 1940s. There are only a few structures left standing on the property along with the crumbling remains of brick foundations. Those items along with old black and white photos will be combined to create the 3D map, allowing people to take a virtual tour of Dearfield in its heyday.

Another project involves transferring interviews that were done in the 1960s with former residents from reel to reel tape to digital copies.

Junior biomedical science and anthropology major Chris Counts, will be one of those students who will work on transcribing the copies.

Counts said it was a great feeling being able to utilize his degree and preserve a little known part of history.

“It’s a very cool feeling. I feel this is a part of Colorado history that I never knew much about,” Counts said. “I think it’s a really unique part of African American and also Colorado history, so any chance to preserve that I think is a really good thing.”

There’s been surface level and sub-surface level archaeological digs done on the site. Brown said the archaeological digs have provided CSU students a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience in the field.

“Most of the time the students that get involved in these archaeological digs stand back behind the ropes and watch the archaeologist dig,” Brown said. “It’s rare that they get to get in the trenches and be involved in the dig.”

Brown said a lot of these original artifacts could disintegrate within a few years, meaning this could be the last chance to document a significant part of Colorado history.

Sophomore biochemistry major Erin Renfrew, has been working with University of Colorado-Denver graduate student Kimberly Hannigan, on preserving a World War I uniform worn by an African American soldier and a 48-star American flag.

She said knowing that the wool jacket is a protein based material and reactive to both acids and bases allowed her and Hannigan to decide what kind of materials to store and present the jacket in. In this case, they used un-buffered tissue paper to extend the life of the jacket for as long as possible.

Renfrew said it was interesting using her knowledge of American history to research the story behind the soldier who wore the jacket. Using primary sources like enlistment, honorable discharge papers and the patches that were on the jacket, Renfrew was able to research and find out what division the soldier was in during World War I.

“That was a really cool project, taking those primary sources and expanding on them,” Renfrew said.

Collegian writer Austin Briggs can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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