Breckenridge Museum: A Rags-to-Riches Story of Barney Ford

Everyone knows Breckenridge as one of America’s top ski resorts. But not many visitors know that the town also owns a rich history of mining dating to the discovery of gold in 1859. Even fewer are aware that one of Colorado’s most important pioneers lived and worked in the small mining camp during its founding years.

The epic rags-to-riches story of Barney Launcelot Ford — a black man who escaped slavery to become one of Colorado’s wealthiest and influential residents — comes alive at his home-turned-museum in Breckenridge.

The Barney Ford House has been restored to its 1882 likeness, celebrating the life and times of this Colorado pioneer.

The museum created in Barney Ford’s restored Victorian cottage celebrates the businessman’s life and accomplishments.

Architect Elias Nashold designed and built the five-room wood-framed Victorian cottage, which was a sharp contrast to the log cabins and tent homes of the day.

By the time the Ford family moved into the home, the former slave was a successful restaurateur, hotelier and businessman in the Rocky Mountain region.

He was recognized nationally as a black civil rights leader, helping to establish Colorado’s first adult education classes for blacks and using his influence to delay statehood for Colorado territory until black men were assured the right to vote.

In addition, he lobbied the federal government to relieve the burden of excessive income taxes and license fees on saloonkeepers, and he became the first black in the state to serve on a U. S. grand jury. His political and civil rights activism earned him the title “Black Baron.”

Ford was born in 1822 without a last name to a black illiterate slave and a white plantation owner in Virginia. His mother was convinced that reading held the keys to freedom for her light-skinned, blue-eyed son, so she insisted the boy learn to read from a dictionary stolen from her master. (Laws of the antebellum South at the time forbade education for slaves.)

Barney secretly worked on his new skills, and through reading he learned about the Underground Railroad, a clandestine operation that helped runaway slaves travel to northern states and Canada. With its aid he managed a daring escape to Chicago where he met and married Julia Lyoni in 1849.
He was 27. As they began their life together, Julia gave Barney a last name — Launcelot Ford — after seeing it on a steam engine.

Ford was fascinated with the quest for gold, and the fever burned hotly throughout his life. After an aborted trip to California’s Gold Rush, he headed west again in 1860, this time to Colorado.

In Breckenridge, Ford indeed found gold, but a lawyer scammed him into registering the claim in his name with the provision that Ford could keep 80 percent of the profits. Served with eviction papers, Ford escaped with his cache of gold dust into the woods on a hill east of town where unproved rumor says he buried a fortune valued at $100,000. In 1964, the hill was named Barney Ford Hill.

Born to a black slave and white plantation owner, Barney Ford escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and headed west in search of gold.

In 1863, Ford reunited with Julia and their infant son in Denver. Borrowing seed money from a local banker, he started People’s Restaurant — a high-class establishment catering to Denver’s elite. He later built and operated the swanky Inter-Ocean Hotel at 16th and Blake streets in Denver and lived in a mansion at 1569 High St.

After a series of successes and setbacks, the family moved back to Breckenridge. By 1882, when the train began chugging into town, “The Prince of Caterers,” as he was known, was happily operating Ford’s Restaurant and Chop House.

During this time, Ford invested in the Oro Mine Group and made a sizable profit. Soon business waned and altitude began to affect Julia, so the Fords moved to Denver. Here they lived modestly until Julia died in 1899. Ford died four years later and was buried next to Julia in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery.

In 1992, Ford was inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame and listed as one of the 100 Greatest Coloradans. Today, a stained glass portrait of him hangs alongside other leaders in the state Capitol.

If You Go

The Barney Ford House Museum is in Breckenridge at Washington Avenue and Main Street. 111 Washington Ave., Breckenridge, Colo. 80424

Hours through April: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Hours during May and June: Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Admission is free with a suggested donation.
Information: 970-453-5761

Colorado native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning ski and travel journalist and the author of the book “Women Ski.” She writes for local, national and international publications.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.