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.

"You can talk about a conflict of interest and the perception of a conflict," says Bill Gwaltney, a representative with the National Park Service in Wyoming. "The perception is enough to make you wonder if something is going on."

The perception was also enough to make the Park Service back off from participating in future events. "I felt uncomfortable enough to go on record immediately," Gwaltney continues. "We can't be involved in this kind of scenario. If it isn't resolved, we can't participate in anything."

Gwaltney's colleague at the Park Service, Sandra Washington, who helped facilitate the event, adds, "Both of us expressed some concern about conflicts of interest. We didn't want to work with [the museum] on an ongoing basis. We'd have to look at it really, really carefully."

Lane Ittelson, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Colorado Historical Society, says he came in late during the meeting and missed some of the introductions. But he describes the Bookhardts' comments about Boon and Boon's plans as "very confusing and very vague. I'm not sure what the relationship is, but I'm a little confused by it. There's a potential for a conflict of interest."

Ittelson says he knew that Boon and Boon owned several parcels of land around Dearfield. The surprise, he says, was finding out that the company had development plans--and that the daughter of the firm's Colorado agent was on the museum board. "When I found out later she was a boardmember, that was a surprise," says Ittelson. "She talked about Boon and Boon and then left, and it was clear her role was with Boon and Boon."

Dawn Bookhardt did not return several phone calls from Westword. But museum director McNair says that Bookhardt has offered to recuse herself from any vote about Dearfield taken by the board of directors.

Bookhardt is a partner in the Denver law firm of Bookhardt & O'Toole, the former firm of L. Tyrone Holt, a close confidant of Webb's who in 1992 was suspended from the practice of law for one year after admitting to income-tax evasion and cocaine abuse. In 1994 Bookhardt & O'Toole received a controversial contract from the Webb administration to investigate the possibility of suing Denver broadcast journalist Dan Caplis. The radio talk-show host had irked administration officials by suggesting that the city may have misled investors who had purchased Denver International Airport bonds.

Dawn Bookhardt joined the museum board in 1992, before the institution got serious about purchasing land in Dearfield. And museum board chairman Steve Shepard says he sees no conflict in her ties to John Bookhardt and Boon and Boon. "It's not even an issue," Shepard says. "From my standpoint, all of those issues are really not surprising, and they're not something that can't be overcome. If I was really concerned about these types of issues, I wouldn't be doing this at all."

But others say they smell a rat. Denver artist Donnie Betts, who helped produce an award-winning 1995 documentary about Dearfield that aired on Channel 6, refers to John Bookhardt as a "shagster. He doesn't deal on the up and up." After Betts and Channel 4 anchor Reynelda Muse had completed their well-received documentary, Betts says, Dr. Bookhardt came calling.

"He approached me and Reynelda about using the videotape in some kind of promotional video," says Betts. "The purpose of the video was never to be used in that manner. It was educational." The two men met only once, but Betts says the experience left a sour taste in his mouth. Says the artist, "He was a little too slick."

Friends describe John F. Bookhardt as a good doctor and a shrewd businessman. They say he's good at making money in oil and gas ventures. But he also has a knack for finding trouble.

"He's an extremely successful businessperson," says Ted Hunt, a retired Denver physician and a friend of Bookhardt's. "He worked the hell out of properties and became pretty well-known. He wasn't shucking and jiving. He had the bucks, baby."

In recent years, Hunt says, Bookhardt has virtually dropped off the face of the earth, not returning calls and keeping a low profile. Few of the people who've been working on the Dearfield project even realize that he lives in Denver. Reached by phone at his home, John Bookhardt declined to be interviewed by Westword and then hung up.

However, Bookhardt has been a player in Dearfield since the mid-1970s. In 1975 his Carbook Corporation acquired a deed of trust on about 400 acres of land in Dearfield for $69,000. In a 1983 deed on file with the Weld County Clerk, he was identified as the registered agent for Boon and Boon, which had acquired land in the same area.

In 1981 Bookhardt was sued by a Wyoming couple who had loaned him $75,000 secured in part by the deed on his Dearfield property. That couple, Leo and Genevieve Aimonetto, claimed they later learned that Bookhardt had misled them about the loan collateral. A Weld County district judge entered a default judgment against Bookhardt for the debt, which, with interest, amounted to $97,000.

The Aimonetto case wasn't Bookhardt's only brush with the justice system. In 1985 he pled guilty in Denver District Court to one count of theft and one count of obtaining drugs by fraud and deceit. The theft charge stemmed from Bookhardt's having filled out Medicaid reimbursement forms for patients he had never treated. The second count was for writing bogus prescriptions for the controlled substance Dilaudid. According to court records, Bookhardt filled out hundreds of prescriptions in the early 1980s and acquired some 50,000 tablets of the drug in a two-year time span, enough to attract the attention of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He was sentenced to probation in the criminal case, and in 1992 the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners revoked his license.

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.

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."

Pollard, the museum's land agent, is more blunt about the town's prospects. Even if somebody--whether the museum or Boon and Boon--does manage to build something, he soberly points out, it's not at all certain that anyone will come to see it.

"It's a place where a few dozen black pioneers tried to settle," says Pollard. "The drawing factor of that is limited.

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