I’ll admit it, I didn’t expect to find a fascinating story of African American history in Breckenridge, Colorado, one of the state’s ski towns. A museum colleague suggested I visit the Barney Ford house. I’d never heard of Ford. Since the house was a block from my accommodations I decided to stop by for a visit after the outhouse race. (Yes, you read it correctly)
It turns out that Barney Ford’s life could be a Hollywood movie; it’s filled with twists and turns that intersect with major themes of American history. Ford was born in 1822 on a plantation near Stafford, Virginia, his father the plantation owner, his mother one of the slaves. He taught himself to read and write with help from his mother. When his mother died, he was sold first to South Carolina and then to Georgia. Hired out to work on a Mississippi River boat, he managed to escape when it was docked at Quincy, Illinois. He was 26. He made his way to Chicago, with help from the Underground Railroad, became a barber and got married. He also chose the last name, Ford, supposedly from a steam locomotive he saw in Chicago. In 1851, the California gold fields lured him and his wife. The Fords traveled by ship from New York, since it was risky for escaped slaves to travel by land. They never made it to California because they liked Nicaragua and ended up staying. They bought and opened a restaurant in Nicaragua. The business was successful, but it was destroyed during the Nicaraguan civil war. The Fords then returned to Chicago where they ran a livery stable, which was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
But the gold fever had maintained its hold on Ford
and he headed west again, for the Colorado gold fields. He discovered gold near Breckenridge, but since African Americans weren’t allowed to stake a claim, he made a deal with a white lawyer to use his name for the claim. The man swindled him and Ford was once again back at a new start. His put his business skills to use again and opened a barbershop, restaurant and hotel in Denver. His entrepreneurial endeavors bore success and by the 1870s he was one of the wealthiest men in Colorado.
In 1882 the Fords moved to Breckenridge where they built another restaurant and the Victorian house on Washington Avenue. But their stay in Breckenridge was relatively short. By 1890 they had retired to Denver.
Throughout his time in Colorado, Ford lobbied for civil rights for African Americans. He initially opposed statehood for Colorado because the proposed Constitution barred blacks from voting. He lobbied for the 15th amendment giving suffrage to black men nationwide and then supported statehood in 1876.
While the house does not contain many items owned by the Fords, it is a tribute to his amazing story. The state capitol building in Denver features a stained glass window honoring Ford’s contributions to Colorado.