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Dearfield sparks student interest, research

March 1, 2012
By Kayla Green

Several undergraduate and graduate students from CSU, UNC, University of Colorado, Texas A&M University and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater have delved into the historic anomaly surrounding one of Colorado's very own: Dearfield.

A historic anomaly

A look at the new building

(8 images)

Oliver Toussaint Jackson founded Dearfield in 1910.

The service station in Dearfield, Colo.

Oliver Toussaint Jackson's Dearfield home

A building in Dearfield, Colo.

Part of the buffalo soldier reenactment at the Dearfield centennial celebration in 2010.

Hannigan works to preserve an old WWI uniform.

A WWI uniform donated to the Black American West Museum.

Hannigan uses the adhesive-backed Volara Polyethylene foam to help preserve the 48-star American flag.

Dearfield, a historically black community that sprouted up around the early 1900s, has been puzzling travelers for years along Highway 34. Originally founded by Oliver Toussaint Jackson in 1910, the community became an agricultural center, producing crops valued at $50,000. Dearfield reached its economic height between 1919 and 1923 when the town had roughly 150-300 residents, two churches, 24 homes, a store, a café, a school, a blacksmith’s shop and a dance hall- which was a popular fad during the time period.

Unfortunately, with the Dust Bowl creating difficulties for their agricultural industry and the growing prejudice against ethnic minorities, the community began to decline, ultimately leaving the town vacant.

Until now.

‘A nugget of amazing history’

Students from several participating universities, including CSU, have teamed up to explore what Dearfield was like, how it’s changed, and ways to help preserve it before it disappears much like the dust bowl. “Dearfield is such a nugget of amazing history for Colorado,” said Phoenix Morning-Star, coordinator of Undegraduate Research for the Office of Undergraduate Research. “We had students interested in doing research, took a tour with George Junne at UNC, and from there, it became a challenge to get our students out there and involved.”

CSU’s program, offered through the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry and run by Mark Brown, gives students the same opportunity to participate in research as their more science-based discipline counterparts. “Right now we have students in anthropology, history, natural resources , computer science, political science—all doing research in their fields with this program,” said Brown.

And Kimberly Hannigan is just one of those students.

Stopping time and preserving artifacts

Hannigan, a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Denver and CSU alumna, is currently pursuing her master’s degree in humanities following a bachelor’s in Apparel Merchandising.

“When I was at CSU—before the Avenir Museum— I took a class called ‘Historic Textiles,’ and one of our assignments was to go into the collection and work with one of the items,” she said. The class ultimately sparked her interest, leading to a volunteer position with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where she began working in conservation in the Latin American exhibit.

And with her background and interest in preserving artifacts and clothing, it’s no surprise Hannigan fit right in with CSU, the Black American West Museum and the Dearfield Dream Project. And her latest task? Preserving a 48-star American flag and an old World War I uniform coat. 

“You have to use an un-buffered box or un-buffered tissue paper to lay the uniform in,” she explained. “Because clothing can be heavy, you have to measure the coat and create padding for it that will puff it up so it will lay naturally without creases.” Hannigan explained that over time creasing will cause the fibers to thin out and deteriorate.

For Hannigan, the Dearfield Dream Project has allowed her to work more closely with textiles, a passion, she claims, she hasn’t been able to do in awhile.

Student-generated ideas

Much like Hannigan, many other students involved in the project are pursuing their passion through the program. “We have Natural Resources students plotting sites of the original Dearfield buildings, history majors creating digital copies of tapes recorded from residents in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and anthropology students involved in surface-level digs at the Dearfield site,” said Brown. “The projects are all student-generated ideas, and there are plenty of opportunities for them to get involved.”

So for the time being, it seems Dearfield will no longer be a quiet, little town.

The Dearfield Dream Project is a collaborative research initiative involving numerous contributors, including the Black American West Museum, University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Texas A&M University, University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, Weld County Government, City of Greeley, and Colorado Preservation, Inc.