Woe, Pioneers

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

Jackson eventually tried to sell the entire town "on reasonable terms." There were no offers. Before his death in 1948, he willed his land to his niece, Jennie Jackson, who had come from Chicago to care for him five years earlier. Jennie Jackson lived in the town until her death in 1973.

Today there is no exit ramp for Dearfield, just a patch of asphalt wide enough to let a car pull off the road. The fields so dear to Dr. Westbrook have been overrun by nature. The weeds and the wind also threaten to reclaim Oliver Jackson's original house, purchased last year by the museum, as well as an old lunchroom, which is owned by two Denver investors. The museum wants to restore Jackson's old home. For now, it's flooded with pigeons and looks like it could be toppled by a strong wind. The lunchroom looks like it could be taken out by the same gust.

What's left of the town's main drag, Washington Street, is sand, dirt and sagebrush. Coyotes inhabit the area, as do bull snakes and owls. The remains of one decaying home are almost totally obscured within a belt of thick Russian thistles. Tires and scrap metal provide the landscaping, and vegetation grows inside the shell of an old Volkswagen bug.

Only Jerry Toler's general store, with its newly painted white walls, looks intact. "When I purchased it, I figured this was the last place somebody wanted to do something," says Toler, a Jerry Garcia look-alike who dreamed of moving to the mountains when he retired from his job as a sheriff's deputy in Denver. "That's why I moved out here."

Toler is sympathetic to the idea of preserving the town and says he plans to reopen the general store as a kind of rural 7-Eleven in the coming months. But by all accounts, the owners of the lunchroom, listed in county records as Donald Fachs and Ronald Oakley, aren't interested in having anyone do anything to their structure. Fachs and Oakley couldn't be reached for comment; Toler and the Rushings describe them as Denver taxi drivers who've talked about turning the old eatery into an old folks' home for retired cabbies.

"We bent over backwards trying to work with them," Karen Waddell says of the lunchroom owners. "We offered them all sorts of possibilities. 'Why don't we trade with you? We can give you some land right around the corner.' They didn't want to do it. Then we offered to buy the structure and move it off their land. They knew we had money."

That means that the only pending preservation project in Dearfield is the Jackson house. But the museum has had problems even with that simple endeavor. The house was originally owned by the Rushings, who planned to tear it down and build a home for themselves. But after Darlene Rushing learned more about the town's history, she became committed to preserving the structure. She and the museum reached an agreement that sounded easy enough: The museum would swap a piece of land it owned in the area for the Jackson house.

However, tensions ensued over the Rushings' demand that the museum foot the bill for building an access road and power line to the family's new lot. "I look over there and it just makes me sick," says Darlene Rushing of the run-down Jackson home. "We went through all this trouble, and it's just gonna end up falling down. Nobody's done a thing, and the house has aged horribly this year."

Waddell says she's concerned that the museum's dispute with the Rushings has delayed preservation efforts on the Jackson house. The roof over the front porch collapsed this past winter, and Waddell says the building won't stand many more winters. Part of the $85,000 donated by the Historical Society, she says, was supposed to have been used "to stabilize and winterize the house, and it hasn't been done. The building needs to be boarded up. That's the only structure we have."

Museum board chairman Shepard says that for now, the museum simply has no funds to "do anything" with the house. "That's what the planning is about," he says. "But it's been up there quite a while. I think it'll survive."

So Oliver Jackson's town lives on, ever faintly. The museum board is planning to take the same group of interested parties that attended the symposium on a field trip to Dearfield in early May. But boardmembers say the museum is likely to apply for grants to study the site further before applying for grants to actually preserve it.

Questions about Boon and Boon and the Bookhardts may well complicate any efforts to receive future grants. And even if public funds are made available, the question looms of just what Dearfield will become. Does it make sense, for instance, to drive schoolchildren ninety minutes from Denver to look at a few battered buildings? Why not just watch Betts and Muse's documentary instead?

The Historical Society's Ittelson calls the Dearfield project "historically significant, one we'd like to help. But we can't make any guarantees about our grant money," he adds. "[The museum] needs to look at getting some local partners, some other fundraising sources. This won't be funded exclusively through the historical fund or Great Outdoors Colorado."

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