The Fascinating Barney Ford

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

While small by today’s standards, in 1882 the Colorado home of Barney Lancelot Ford was considered a Victorian showplace. One might tour it today (it is now the Barney Ford Museum) – as I recently did – and in doing so, savor the astonishing story of Ford, a runaway slave who became a millionaire through owning a series of hotels and restaurants (photo, right).

 

Ford was born in 1822 in Stafford, Virginia, and lived his early life as a slave on a South Carolina plantation. His mother, Phoebe, was an African-American slave and his father was the plantation’s white owner. (The photo, left, depicts Ford in his later years.)

 

When Ford was a young man, he walked off a Mississippi riverboat on which he worked and escaped to Chicago. There, he became active in the Underground Railroad after meeting Henry O. Wagoner, a key member. In 1849, at the age of 27, Ford married Wagoner's sister-in-law, Julia Lyoni, with whom he went on to have three children.  

 

Ford’s Breckenridge home dates to the latter years of his life, after he and Julia had lived in splendor in Denver, where they operated various businesses, including the opulant Inter-Ocean Hotel. The couple also lived and operated businesses in Cheyenne, Wyoming and in Greytown, Nicaragua (photo, right; Inter-Ocean Hotel, Cheyenne, Wyoming).

 

During the Fords’ early years they lived a peripatetic lifestyle as they chased the gold and silver rushes that were the bonanzas of their time – both in California and in Colorado. They lived from 1851 to 1857 in Greytown, Nicaragua due to a steamship voyage they took to ride the California Gold Rush. They never reached California; they liked the Nicaraguan oceanfront and decided to stay, opening the United States Hotel, a venture in which they prospered.

 

By the 1870s, Ford was one of the richest men in Colorado. In 1879, the Colorado Silver Boom brought him to Breckenridge, where he opened two restaurants in succession: Ford’s Chop House and the Saddle Rock.

 

Settled as a gold-mining camp in 1859, Breckenridge went through a series of booms and busts that were typical of Colorado mining towns. What stands out in such towns is the small scale of their architecture: the landscape is dotted with small cottages – and these, naturally, are the buildings that survived. In their heyday, such towns were sprinkled with the humblest of dwellings. As described in the Breckenridge Daily Journal of 1882, the town was “the land of log cabins and tented homes.”

 

Against this backdrop one can imagine how Ford’s cottage, built in 1882 in the Victorian style, must have appeared. One of Breckenridge’s most prominent craftsmen, Elias Nashold, created it as a one-story design with a bay window and an attic large enough to create multiple bedroom chambers, if needed.

 

The home currently features an array of Victorian furnishings. One will see beautifully-carved pieces from the era: carved classical figures sit atop the crests of four dining room chairs and a sitting room settee (photo, above right).

 

To get some sense of how the Fords’ home compared to others in a mountaintop mining town, the Breckenridge Daily Journal of Dec. 18, 1882 describes it as follows: “Its neatly draped and curtained windows convey to the observer an idea of the comforts of the home not often met with amid the mountains.”

 

The newspaper called the parlor “luxuriantly furnished” and said it featured “carpets of the choicest manufacture, furniture of the most comfortable, a mirror and pictures to match their surroundings give the whole air of a boudoir rather than an apartment for general use.” (Parlor photo, above left; photo courtesy of the Barney Ford Museum.)

 

Interestingly, Ford asked Nashold to design the home without a kitchen. In his career, Ford had experienced kitchen fires that burned down buildings and felt they posed too great a danger to a homeowner. Luckily, he owned a nearby restaurant that catered the meals for his family. (Photo, right, dining room.)

 

The home has been restored in the Victorian style in which the Fords would have originally furnished it, but little is original to the Fords. In the sitting area, there is a massive Eastlake desk that Barney once owned and the entryway features a gorgeous wallpaper that was restored from the original (photo, left).

 

However, one will see furnishings that were absolutely fashionable during the Victorian era. From the dining room ceiling hangs a slag lamp dripping with crystals. And in the parlor there is a vase filled with peacock feathers near a photograph of Julia, a nod to the great popularity of peacock motifs near the end of the 1800s (photo, right). 

 

In addition to being a Victorian time capsule, the Barney Ford Museum features exhibits relating to local and African-American history, in which we learn that Ford became not only a millionaire, but a pivotal black leader. He was a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, as well as being instrumental in Colorado receiving its 1876 statehood with a constitution that gave blacks the right to vote.

 

Barney Ford died in 1902. Tragically, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake took the life of Ford’s only grandchild, so no direct descendants survive.

 

To learn more about the Barney Ford Museum, visit www.breckheritage.com/barney-ford-victorian-home.

 

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