Maintained by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA) as a museum, the Barney Ford Victorian House sits at a prime location on Washington and Main streets. In the high season, the renovated historic home sometimes draws up to 100 visitors in a single day. Several rooms throughout share stories of the escaped slave who became a very successful businessman and civil rights activist, leaving a legacy throughout Summit County, Colorado and beyond.
Born into slavery in 1822, Ford was the son of a white plantation owner and an African-American mother. After escaping from a river boat as a young adult, Ford used the Underground Railroad to make his way to Chicago.
“Just about every slave who was escaping back then, before the Civil War, that was their objective — because there was no slavery in Canada. … Once they got to large cities with large black populations they just kind of melted in and felt kind of safe,” said Rick Galgas, tour guide with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
Instead of continuing to Canada, Ford met his wife, Julia, and decided to stay. He was trained as a barber, and it was then that he took the last name of “Ford.”
“His father never claimed him,” said Sherrie Calderini, who works in the Barney Ford House for the BHA. “He didn’t really need a last name until he and Julia decided they wanted to get married. The story goes they were either walking through the railroad yard or they saw this train engine, and it had a name. It was Lancelot Ford. They liked it … and they took it. When they got married, they became Mr. and Mrs. Barney Lancelot Ford.”
With the idea of heading West for the California Gold Rush, Ford and his wife caught a ship in New York. It was dangerous for a runaway slave to travel across the U.S., so traveling by boat was the safest way. Upon reaching Nicaragua, Ford and his wife decided to stay, and Ford opened a hotel and restaurant and ran it for about six years, Galgas said. After a fire destroyed his business and then civil unrest in the country made it dangerous to stay, Ford and his wife left and returned to Chicago.
After a stint in Chicago, Ford decided to take his chances on the gold rush, but this time in Colorado. He stayed with another notable figure in history, freed slave Clara Brown, in Central City. Freed in 1856, Brown had made her way to Colorado from Kentucky working as a cook for a prospecting party, Galgas said. Brown opened a successful laundry facility and became prosperous herself, investing in real estate and mining claims. She spent her life searching for her only surviving child Eliza, finally reuniting with her in 1882.
Ford took up a claim and started mining, only to leave the area after a short time, in October 1861, after opening a boarding house in French Gulch and closing it due to early snowstorm and men heading back to fight in the Civil War. Returning to Breckenridge around 1880, he opened a restaurant on Main Street and purchased a large piece of land where the museum is today. He made savvy business moves, investing $4,000 in the Oro mine in French Gulch in 1887. He sold his investment two years later, realizing a profit of over $500K in today’s money.
While some of the history written in books has conflicting information, the message of perseverance is clear. Overcoming slavery, bankruptcy and other trials, Ford became a wealthy entrepreneur and a voice for civil rights. He was one of a number of African-Americans to push for education for emancipated slaves that had come West after the war, Calderini said, and helped open a school for this reason. He lobbied in Washington, D.C., against Colorado becoming a state when its constitution did not allow for African-Americans to vote. A stained glass window honoring the man still adorns the Colorado State Capitol.
“I think one of the things that’s important to know about him is his resilience,” said Phyl Rubinstein, who works at Barney Ford Home for the BHA. “He was an escaped slave, and he became a very successful businessman. He lost businesses, he went bankrupt several times, and every time he fought his way back. That lesson of resilience and strength is really something important for us to know about.”