Woe, Pioneers

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

Bookhardt eventually found his way to Nebraska, where, as a condition of holding a medical license, he agreed to have another physician sign off on any prescriptions he wrote. According to Nebraska Department of Health officials, Bookhardt didn't keep his word. His license to practice in Nebraska was revoked in 1990. He was reinstated in 1993 but was required to take a national proficiency exam, which he continually put off by requesting extensions. Finally, Nebraska examiners had enough and revoked his license again last September.

Bookhardt's business associate, Nelson Boon, also failed to return repeated phone calls from Westword. But public records and published accounts suggest he has had professional problems of his own. In 1986 the Wisconsin commissioner of securities found that Boon had sold more than $118,000 in unregistered securities. In the mid-1980s Boon was a principal investor in a bizarre attempt to market a sports car in the Middle East bearing the name of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The car, to be called the Ali3, was to have been built from the drivetrain and chassis of the Pontiac Fiero and shipped overseas to wealthy Arabs--who, the theory went, were big fans of the former champ. A large factory was to have been built near Milwaukee, but in 1987 Ali pulled out of the venture, complaining that the financing wasn't set.

In 1990 a Boon-owned towing company, R/C Towing, was awarded a $1.9 million minority towing contract with the City of Milwaukee. The city later sued Boon, accusing him of overbilling it for more than $350,000. Peter Kovac, an attorney for Boon, says the case was settled for a payment of between $50,000 and $100,000. But it apparently pushed Boon into financial straits. His towing company declared bankruptcy last year, and because Boon failed to disclose a $50,000 certificate of deposit on R/C's schedule of assets, he was charged with felony bankruptcy fraud. He pled guilty last October and was sentenced to five years' probation and four months' house arrest.

Why Boon's company waited until the February meeting in Denver to announce its plans to build something in Dearfield is a mystery. Complicating matters further is the fact that most observers say developing anything in Dearfield will be almost impossible.

"To develop 400 acres, it would cost a fortune for the water," says Dan Pollard, real estate agent for the Black American West Museum. "There's not 500 people within twenty miles of this place. [U.S.] 34 is not a major road. The next closest town is Kersey, and Kersey barely supports two bars and a gas station. Basically, they'd have to build a whole new town, and there's nobody out there to inhabit it."

The prospects for Dearfield have been bleak almost since its founding by black businessman Oliver T. Jackson, who laid the town out near a station on the La Salle-Julesburg branch of the Union Pacific Railroad. Jackson came to Colorado from Ohio in 1887, worked as a farmer for a number of years and ran a popular resort near Boulder. He also served as a messenger to Governor John Shafroth.

Influenced by Booker T. Washington's self-help opus Up From Slavery, Jackson set out to encourage black Coloradans to begin owning and working their own land. In 1909 he started the Negro Townsite and Land Company in Denver. He hoped an endorsement of his proposed town by Washington would help attract investors, but Washington never sent his blessings, and no one bought the company's bonds. The company dissolved, but Jackson, thanks to his ties to Shafroth, was tipped off to about 25,000 acres of federal land that had recently been opened to homesteading. Jackson and seven other families bought property there, and Dearfield was born in 1910, the same year that the NAACP was founded in New York City.

One of the town's early supporters, Dr. J.H.P. Westbrook, suggested the Dearfield name, writing: "These are to be our fields, and because they are ours and because we expect and hope to develop them into substantial homes, they will be dear to us, so why not incorporate that sentiment in the name we select and call our colony Dearfield?"

Jackson originally bought a 320-acre tract in Dearfield, and his town soon grew to 20,000 acres. Blacks owned about 15,000 acres; whites owned the rest. Dearfield's success was predicated on dryland farming, says Karen Waddell, who works for the National Trust and led efforts to have the town named to the National Register. And the town grew rapidly during World War I, which brought with it a large demand for agricultural exports. By 1921, there were 44 buildings in Dearfield and 700 people.

By the 1930s, however, it was a dying town. Years of drought and falling crop prices crippled the community, most of whose residents moved back to the cities they had sought to escape years before. Some sold their homes for as little as $5. By 1940, the population of Dearfield had dwindled to twelve souls.

Jackson sold building after building for lumber, trying desperately to find an heir to continue his work. But black soldiers returning from World War II wanted no part of a dust-whipped town on the plains. At one point the town's founder tried to attract visitors by marketing Dearfield as a resort lodge and briefly considered selling his land to the U.S. government for use as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

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