Woe, Pioneers

A whole new crop of problems is sprouting in a historic black farming settlement

The Rushing family's mobile home stands alone off U.S. 34 on the arid plains southeast of Greeley. Speeding past on the two-lane highway, motorists are likely to miss the trailer. They're equally likely to miss the town, identified by a solitary highway sign as Dearfield.

As has always been the case for Dearfield residents, the Rushing family's connections to the outside world are few: one long black dirt road from the highway to their front porch; one water well; and one power line whose wires dip into the house. Other than that, they are surrounded by nothing.

"We're trying to turn the place into something other than blowsand," says Ben Rushing, a Weld County sheriff's deputy, who with his wife, Darlene, and two children has carved a small racetrack out of the dusty plains for the couple's two dogs and scratched out a small garden. Ben has the weary look of someone who isn't happy where he is but would never say so. He and Darlene plan to build a home, he says, but he doesn't know when. "I don't want to spend another winter in that," he adds, nodding at the mobile home.

The Rushings, who are white, are among the newest residents of Dearfield, which has been in steady decline since World War I, when it was a thriving community of African-American farmers and ranchers and the most successful black colony in Colorado. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, Dearfield has been a ghost town for much of the last fifty years. The Rushings and the town's half-dozen other residents came not for the town's sense of history but to escape the growing urban clutter along the Front Range. They didn't come far enough, however.

A late February symposium sponsored by Denver's Black American West Museum brought together landowners with different--and contentious--ideas for the tiny settlement. Last year the museum purchased a historic structure in Dearfield with the help of an $85,000 grant from the Colorado Historical Society. Museum officials hope to preserve the remaining structures and turn what's left of the town into a kind of living museum. But a Wisconsin company called Boon and Boon, which has quietly owned land there since the early 1980s, is now talking about commercial development in the town: everything from a fish hatchery to condominiums to a retirement home for African-Americans.

The February symposium raised questions--not only about whether anyone can develop or preserve the settlement, but about the backgrounds and intentions of players on both sides. Boon and Boon's president, Nelson E. Boon Jr., recently pled guilty in a Wisconsin court to bankruptcy fraud. His company is represented in Colorado by John F. Bookhardt, a physician who's been convicted of theft and has had his license to practice medicine revoked in two states. Bookhardt's daughter, Dawn Bookhardt, is a Denver attorney whose firm has ties to the administration of Mayor Wellington Webb--and who also happens to be a member of the Black American West Museum's board of directors.

The links that exist between Boon and Boon, John Bookhardt and Dawn Bookhardt were largely unknown to many of the players in the Dearfield matter until the symposium. And they've thrown into question efforts to devote more public money to establishing Dearfield as a historic attraction.

"I don't know what they're doing," says one former museum boardmember who asked not to be identified. "There's something not right going on. The daughter is on the board, and to me that's a conflict of interest. If her father has anything to do with that property, she should not be able to vote. She should not even be on the board."

Adds the longtime Dearfield enthusiast, "It's a shame such a historic site might go to pot."

The purpose of the February meeting was to discuss preservation options for the Dearfield site and to determine how best to go after grants from public agencies like Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Historical Society. But the gathering raised more questions than it answered.

The two-day affair in Denver brought together historic-preservation agents, potential grant providers, museum members and researchers from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. Interestingly, landowners in Dearfield weren't invited. Museum director Wallace Yvonne McNair says that's because the museum didn't have a concrete agenda to present to them.

If he had been invited, "I'd have been there for sure," says Jerry Toler, who owns one of Dearfield's few remaining historic structures, a still-intact general store that he hopes to reopen in the coming months. The other significant landowner in Dearfield, Boon and Boon, wasn't originally scheduled to be at the meeting, either. But thanks to Dawn Bookhardt, it got a last-minute invitation. "When we were formulating the guest list, she just said she had some people she'd like to invite," McNair says. "So that was that."

Actually, that was just the beginning. One of Bookhardt's guests was her father--and sources who were at the event say both Bookhardts appeared to be representing Boon and Boon. In fact, say the sources, the father-and-daughter team discussed the company's possible development prospects in Dearfield. That bothered many of the participants, including officials of the National Park Service, which oversees National Register sites.

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