Exterior shot of the Barney Ford House.

photo by: Breckenridge Heritage Alliance

February 18, 2016

Preserving a Slice of African-American History at the Barney Ford House

  • By: Sophia Dembling

Breckenridge differs from many of Colorado’s other ski resorts in that, rather than having been built specifically to accommodate skiers and their après-ski activities, it’s a real town with a past, grown from a nugget of gold discovered on August 10, 1859. The one-time mining town, which endured booms and busts, finally turned to tourism in 1961, opening the ski resort when it was barely 300 residents away from being a ghost town.

Today, many of the town’s historic structures house shops and restaurants. But the past is not forgotten in Breckenridge, and Robin Theobald is among the locals making sure of that.

A fifth-generation Summit County resident, Theobald has purchased and restored or renovated 16 historic buildings in town. Among Theobald’s properties is a small house that tells a story about a fascinating figure in African-American history. The circa 1882 house was built for Barney Ford, who escaped slavery to become a prosperous entrepreneur, civil rights activist (he lobbied for education and voting rights for African-Americans in Colorado), member of the state legislature, and one of the state’s wealthiest men.

At the time it was built, the house was one of the finest in Breckenridge, though it lacked a kitchen; Ford owned a nearby restaurant and didn’t see the need for one (one of the facts you’ll learn about Ford and his house on a museum tour). A kitchen was added before Theobald’s mother purchased the house in about 1947. His family lived in the house until Theobald was about 12 years old, and it stayed in the family’s possession after they moved out.

After his mother passed, Theobald—in partnership with the town of Breckenridge—restored the house to become the Barney Ford House Museum, which opened in 2004. We talked to Theobald about the Barney Ford house and other preservation projects.
Historic picture of the Barney Ford House.

photo by: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

A historic sketch of the Barney Ford House.

Was your family always aware of the history of the Barney Ford house?

I believe so, yes. Both my parents were attorneys. My father was in the abstracting business, among others, so I’m sure that they had known. It was pretty commonly known among the community that Barney Ford had built that house.

Why did your family move out of the house?

It got to the point where it needed restoring; the floors in the back end had rotted out. We moved out so we wouldn’t have to live there while we did the work. It took several years to do what my parents did, and then my mother sort of moved back into it and kind of kept it as a quasi museum/getaway place. It was always [my parents’] intention to move back there, but they just never did.

What made you decide to make a museum of the house? I imagine it would have been more financially rewarding to use the structure for retail.

The plan was always to do a museum. There had been discussion with the town of Breckenridge over the years; they wanted to see it become a museum. I’d always been interested in Barney Ford, and always found his story compelling. I think it’s compelling way beyond Breckenridge. It’s certainly important in Colorado’s history, and I think it’s important in the nation’s history as well. There was never any consideration whatsoever that it was going to be anything other than a museum.

With no photos of the interior to work from, how did you restore it?

We knew that there had been a lot of work done on the house through the years. We knew that the kitchen area had been added and we knew what my parents had done, so we started by winding that back. There were some pictures of the outside over the years, so we knew when some things on the outside had been added, which gave us perspective as to what was happening on the inside. An old building sort of tells a story when you start getting into it, peeling back the wallpaper and finding where openings had been changed and those kinds of things.

Quite frankly, we undid a lot of the stuff that my parents had done. They put drywall on the walls and it had a lot of wallpaper—very nice wallpaper, but it wasn’t in the correct plane with the door casing and window casing trim. It needed to come off.

And my parents put hot water baseboard heating around. That’s fine heating, but it destroys the look of the original old baseboard. It had to go, it was glaring. We took that same boiler and system and put the heat underneath the floor so it doesn’t show at all but guarantees that the house stays at a comfortable preset temperature.

My wife took a sample of one of the layers of wallpaper we uncovered and got a company to reproduce it. It’s later than Barney Ford, we know that. There again, when you start tearing trim off and things like that, you discover the first wallpaper. They put the wallpaper up and then they put the casing over, which gave it a nice clean look.

At some point somebody cut the old wallpaper off and started over. So when we took the casing off, we were able to find the original wallpaper, and it was spectacular, five-color wallpaper. It just wasn’t within the budget to reproduce, if there was a company that could even do it.

The Fords have no descendants and the museum contains very few artifacts from Ford’s life. Are you still looking?

We found what we could. We’re certainly not closed to looking for others, but the kinds of things we found is letterhead from the hotel that he built in Denver. We have a door that came off his hotel in Denver that we were given by a man who made it his mission to find something like that. He ended up having to buy a piece of real estate in the Denver area to get the door, so it’s a rather spectacular contribution.

Anything else you want to do to the house?

There’s another building on the property that’s a miner’s cabin and has never been anything other than a miner’s cabin—you could almost open the door right now and have a pretty good example of that. I’d like to get that fixed up and opened.

Is your son following in the family footsteps?

He hasn’t had the good fortune of being able to do any projects for himself or for the family business, but he’s done a lot of projects, both working for the town and now on his own. He’s following in footsteps in terms of being in the construction business and construction management but hasn’t yet undertaken the restoration of one of the family’s buildings.

I have a couple that I haven’t done yet. I guess I’m saving them for my son to do.

Portrait shot of Robin Theobald.

photo by: Robin Theobald

Robin Theobald has purchased and restored 16 historic properties in Breckenridge, including the Barney Ford House.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

@sophiadembling

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