Niobrara Boom: Oil Fever Reaches Dearfield

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As we’ve heard in our series on the Niobrara, this vast oil and gas reserve is a blessing or a curse, depending who you ask. Today we’re going to hear about a man who, if drillers strike oil on his land, may have the most to gain. Maybe not in terms of money, but in personal gain. He could reclaim a part of his family’s legacy by moving back to a historic all-black farming town on the plains east of Greeley. CPR’s Zachary Barr has the story.

Other installments of our Niobrara series:

Part 1: Weld County Windfall

Part 2: Front Range Officials Struggle to Have a Say

Part 3: Colorado Springs, Oil Company Spar Over Open Land

Reporter Zachary Barr: Drive about an hour northeast of Denver and you’ll find, and then pass, Dearfield. Just off highway 34, a granite marker spells out the town’s history. The marker looks like a headstone - which is appropriate, as Dearfield’s a ghost town. The town was founded in 1914, but the most prominent features remaining are a pair of unremarkable, decrepit wooden buildings. But Chuck Banks sees more.

Chuck Banks: This building right here was the old diner, and this was a popular place, this place over here was the gas station on the other side.

Reporter: Banks knows this town’s history because his grandmother grew up here.

Banks: My grandmother, who we called Big Mama, a little short lady about 4’11”. She was very stern but very loving. That’s who we called Big Mama.

Reporter: Before she was known as Big Mama, Jesse Marie Ford and her family grew lettuce, melons and tomatoes in Dearfield. 700 other black farmers lived here too. But even as the community thrived in the 1920s danger was literally on the horizon.

Banks: Denver was one of the Klu Klux Klan headquarters. And for blacks to come out in live in this area, they were taking a chance. If they wanted to stir up something, they could come out here and kill up the whole colony, you know.

Reporter: That threat never came to pass, but others did, namely the depression and the dust bowl. By 1940 nearly all of Dearfield’s residents had moved away. Chuck Banks’ relatives included. And while the other black farmers sold their land, the Banks’ were one of the few to hold on.

Banks: We’ve always kept taxes up; my grandmother told my mother, "Never sell, always keep the property so we can always have a place to call home."

Reporter: To reach the original homestead, we leave the main road and walk along a rutted, dusty track.

Banks: My place is just west, it’s about a quarter of a mile just up the way here.

Reporter: Banks says he feels at home out here, even though he grew up far away.

Banks: My dad raised us as cowboys. He raised us as little black cowboys out in Southern California toward the desert area.

Reporter: When Banks was a boy, his family ran a side business breaking wild mustangs. He saw himself working around horses when he grew up, but it didn’t work out that way. He chose a career as a surgical tech. Three years ago, he left L.A. for a new hospital job in Colorado, in part to be near this land and have horses again someday.

Banks: This is the start of our property right here.

Reporter: We walk to the top of a short rise. This is the spot where Banks believes his relatives once homesteaded. Below us, tall cottonwoods shade a green pasture. Although it’s pretty, holding on to this land never made any financial sense. Until about a year and a half ago.

Banks: I got a phone call, a gentleman out of Denver saying he was a broker, would I want to lease out my mineral rights.

Reporter: Then another broker called, offering more.

Banks: And went and got a lawyer, in Greeley, and he said, "Oh yeah, they’re coming in from all directions, and they’re finding that there’s a whole big pool under Weld County."

Reporter: Banks faced a tough decision. Leasing his land could mean new roads, trampled prairie and wells dug wherever drillers saw fit. Would that blemish the land? Maybe so, he concedes. But he went ahead and leased his mineral rights anyway.

Banks: My mom has paid taxes on this land since 1966. She’s prayed on it, and she just said God’s going to bless us out there. My mom’s never had anything really happen good in her life. But we’re a black family that has held on all these years. I just want something good to come out for her.

Reporter: If oil is pumped out of this ground, Chuck Banks’ family nets an 18% royalty. Drilling hasn’t yet started and it may never. But if the oil does flow, Banks says he’ll use the money to pay off debts. And if he strikes it rich, he says he’ll realize his dream: to leave his rental house in Loveland and move to a new home on the family land in Dearfield.

Zachary Barr, Colorado Public Radio News

[Photos: 1. Zachary Barr/CPR; 2&3. Greeley Museum; 3&4. Denver Public Library; 5. Zachary Barr/CPR ]