Dearfield Project Preserves Unique Part of Local History

Dearfield Gas Station

The Dearfield Lodge is depicted in this photo from a 1930s poster used by Dearfield founder O.T. Jackson to extol the virtues of the town as "an ideal spot for a summer outing." Photo Courtesy of UNC Archives

A wind-swept town east of Greeley founded to provide opportunities for African Americans now serves as the inspiration for a UNC professor who's spent the better part of three decades helping preserve it.

By accident, UNC Professor of African Studies George Junne first learned about Dearfield in the 1980s.

He was insuring his new car when his agent mentioned that he and his father had been taking down bricks from homes in the town and recycling them to build fireplaces in other homes.

Junne decided to see Dearfield for himself and inevitably struck up a relationship with the town's ex officio historian '' the lone resident who made the town's old gas station his home. The retired police officer gave Junne a tour of the town and showed him documentation he had.

Years later, the torch has been passed to Junne. In addition to helping coordinate the effort to preserve the town, he now leads tours of the town, which he offers year-round including the month of February in observance of Black History Month. He's also contributed a chapter on Dearfield for an upcoming book on multiculturalism in the West.

Junne rattles off stories about the town:

- He recalls the area known by the misnomer of Green City before O.T. Jackson founded Dearfield in 1910. A developer at the time sought to capitalize on the name with impossible promises to future residents relocating from beyond the state's borders. Among the embellished details: a boat ride from the Denver docks down the Platte River to their new homesteads overlooking verdant pastures.

- The grandparents of one of Junne's former students recovered a box they noticed in the middle of a field in Dearfield after the town's demise. The box contained letters and receipts from an unidentified former resident. After learning about Dearfield in Junne's class, the student successfully encouraged her family to donate the contents to the university.

- The Dearfield collection in UNC's archives includes letters from town founder Jackson. One of the letters is a response from Father Edward Flanagan, of Boys Town fame, to Jackson's request to take troubled youth living in Dearfield.

Dearfield, with a population of 700 in its heyday before dwindling to a dozen by 1940, was one of 15 such towns scattered throughout the state. Towns had their own schools, stores and churches (Dearfield had two), Junne said.

"African Americans weren't trying to get away from white people, but they weren't accepted in many white communities, so they decided 'OK, we'll build our own,' " Junne said.

To date, the coordinated effort to preserve Dearfield includes the city of Greeley, Greeley Museums and the Black American West Museum in Denver. Junne says the first order of business is to stabilize the few remaining buildings. A granite marker is being planned, as is a new road sign. Junne said long-term plans include a nature trail for tours, a museum either on site or elsewhere and archaeological and historical research involving UNC faculty and students.

Of course, financing has a lot to do with the plans. Junne and others are hoping to secure contributions and most recently struck a deal with a local brewery, which pledged to produce an ale honoring the town and devoting a portion of the proceeds toward the preservation effort.

Events can provide a shot in the arm for fundraising. One of those is a celebration of the town's 100th anniversary, which is being planned for Sept. 26.

"It's an ongoing process," Junne said.

- Nate Haas