The History of Barney Ford

Written by Breckenridge History - Posted Feb. 15, 2023

Black History Month and Breckenridge’s Barney Ford

Black History Month takes on special significance in Breck as we celebrate the accomplishments and legacy of one of the town’s most famous citizens, Barney L. Ford. Born into slavery in the American South, Ford’s hard work and perseverance led him to become one of early Colorado’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen and leaders. A civil rights pioneer and community leader, Barney Ford’s inspirational legacy lives on in Breck and far beyond. 

Barney Ford Museum Breckenridge

Born in Virginia in 1822, Ford was raised in South Carolina, where he learned to read and write. For Ford’s first 26 years, he toiled in enslavement. As a young man, he herded hogs from Kentucky to Georgia, worked on a cotton boat on the Apalachicola River, and served on river boats on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. 

At the age of 26, Ford freed himself from his enslaver and fled to Chicago with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. Once free, Ford sought to make his fortune as a gold miner and in 1860, he traveled to the Colorado Territory. However, he quickly learned that mining was not his strong suit. He eventually settled in Denver, opening a barber shop and small restaurant. He also ventured to Breck for a brief season and ran a boarding house. Over the next dozen years, Barney Ford would rise to great prominence and wealth in Colorado’s hospitality industry. His Inter-Ocean Hotels in Denver and Cheyenne were known as the finest in the west. 

Barney Ford Museum Breckenridge

Ford was a well known philanthropist and greatly involved in his local politics. He helped open schools for African American children and adults, funded African Methodist Episcopal churches in Denver that still thrive today, and worked towards suffrage for all men. When Colorado first applied for statehood in the mid-1860s, Ford and other civil rights activists petitioned the U.S. Senate to not grant statehood to Colorado, because  the original constitution gave voting rights only to white men.  And when Colorado achieved statehood in 1876, it was with a constitution giving all men the right to vote. For his successful efforts toward universal suffrage, Colorado honored Barney Ford in 1975 with a stained-glass portrait in the State Capitol building. 

In the late 1870s, Ford was bankrupt from the losses at one of his hotels and turned to our town of Breck that he fell in love with so many years before to rebuild his fortune in 1879.  He opened the Ford’s Chop Stand at the corner of Main and Washington Avenue. An immediate success thanks to his fine cooking and attentive service, Ford soon needed a larger space. Soon after the Stand’s opening, Ford’s Chop House followed on North Main.

Barney Ford Museum Breckenridge

Like many community members in Breck today, Ford made his living in various ways. His return to the town allowed him to follow his long-held dream of striking it rich as a gold miner. In 1887 he invested in mines in French Gulch that would eventually become part of the Wellington-Oro complex. A few years later, he sold his interest, netting him a profit of $20,000, a jackpot  in the 1880s.  

Barney Ford passed away in 1902 leaving behind a generous estate to his two surviving children and a story that would live on and inspire. His rebound in Breckenridge allowed him to build a custom home in 1882 on Washington Avenue. With five rooms, high ceilings and luxurious fixtures the Fords’ house exemplified Victorian civility and refinement. You can still visit this home today, a physical representation of his legacy as the Barney Ford Museum.

To learn more about the history of Breckenridge, visit Breckenridge History for information on tours, museums, and additional blog articles.