I recently ran across the most incredible story about a man named Barney L. Ford, an escaped slave who became one of the wealthiest men in the American West. Ford’s story is filled with a crushing number of obstacles that would surely break most people. He not only overcame slavery and a lifetime of discrimination, but also war, fire, swindlers, and some truly terrible luck. Each time, he dusted himself off and stayed focused on building something for himself and his family.
Ford was born in Stafford, Virginia , on January 22, 1822, to a white plantation owner and an enslaved woman named Phoebe. He grew up on a plantation in South Carolina, where he was not afforded a formal education but did manage to learn to read and write. It’s said that Ford was an extremely eloquent and well-spoken man, which concealed his lack of education and helped him make his way in more “upperclass” circles.
He escaped slavery in 1848 when his owner, Col. Nathaniel Garland Woods, took him on a trip to Illinois, where he learned that the state’s laws allowed him to become a free man if he stayed more than 10 days. And so he did, telling Woods, “If I can do better by myself than I can with you, I feel that I am at liberty to do so; for this is common to all free men.” But Col. Woods had kept tabs on Ford. When he died in October 1850, Woods’ will directed that “my slave Barney now in Chicago shall be emancipated.”
In Chicago, he learned to cut and style hair, a skill he would fall back on several times in later years. Having been known only as Barney his whole life, he gave himself the full name of Barney Lancelot Ford. He met Julia Lyon while in Chicago and, not long after they were married, the two decided to seek their fortune in the West as the California Gold Rush was hitting its peak.
In those days, which was pre-Panama Canal, travelers had to go by boat from New York and around Cape Horn, then sail north to California. A common stop along the route was Greytown, Nicaragua, where Ford actually fell ill and was forced to stay before continuing to California. However, Ford realized during that time that the pass-through point was in desperate need of a hotel, so they stayed in Greytown where they opened the United States Hotel and Restaurant. He was apparently a first class chef and the business was extremely successful. That is until war broke out and his hotel was bombed. And thus began a series of fortunes made and lost for Ford.
1860 – Ford participated in the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush by staking a claim in Breckenridge, Colorado. He was eventually threatened and chased off by local people who found out that as an African American, therefore not allowed to file a claim. He hired a lawyer to help him, but instead he swindled the Fords.
1862 – He and his wife went to Denver and opened a barbershop and a restaurant on Blake Street. At its peak, the business was bringing in nearly $250 a day, which would be nearly $2 million a year in today’s money. The business burned to the ground in the Great Fire of April 1863.
1863 – He replaced the building with a new larger building to accommodate the People’s Restaurant, a bar, and a barbershop. The businesses opened on August 16, 1863 and within 90 days he was able to pay off the $9,000 loan, equivalent to $186,884 in today’s dollars.
1865 – Ford acquired the nickname of “Black Baron of Colorado” by 1865, after making a small fortune from savvy investments in mines, successful restaurants, a barbershop, and rental houses. He then decided to move his family back to Chicago and left his business affairs in the hands of an agent in Denver.
1867 – Ford discovers his agent in Denver has sold off some of his properties and disappeared with the proceeds. Ford isn’t left completely broke but his plan to retire early are dashed.
1870 – Ford returns to Colorado where he gets back into the hotel business. He purchased the Sargent Hotel in downtown Denver and renamed it Ford’s Hotel.
1873 – Ford is again one of the wealthiest men in Colorado and begins building the first of two Inter-Ocean Hotels. Completed in 1874 in downtown Denver, it was the city’s finest at the time.
1875 – Ford opens his second Inter-Ocean Hotel, this one in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The opening comes just one month before the railroad opened the township as a major stop. It was the first hotel in the U.S. to have electricity. However, by the end of 1875, Ford is nearly bankrupt, having suffered enormous losses keeping his hotels afloat in the middle of a depression, which had been kicked off by the Panic of 1873. He is forced to turn over almost everything to creditors.
1880 – The history is foggy, but the Fords are in San Francisco at this point, where Barney discovers chop houses. He takes the idea back to Breckenridge, which was in the midst of a silver boom, and opens Ford’s Restaurant and Chop House.
1882 – Ford is 60 years old at this point, and again a wealthy man. He builds a new Victorian-style home in Breckenridge, which is today the Barney Ford House Museum.
1890 – The Fords return to Denver where they lived out their days on the income generated by Barney’s numerous investments. Julia died in 1900 and Barney passed away in 1902. He died as one of the wealthiest men in the West with a net worth estimated around $6 million.
In between all of Ford’s business ventures, he also fought tirelessly to end racial discrimination and gain civil rights for black people. In the 1850s, he operated the Underground Railroad’s Chicago station, which helped slaves escape to Canada. He and journalist Henry O. Wagoner founded a school for African American children and in eventually established evening classes for adults. In 1865, he effectively lobbied against Colorado statehood on the grounds that black men were denied the ballot. He later traveled to Washington, D.C. to fight for the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which would give African Americans the right to vote. He became the first black man in the state to serve on a U.S. grand jury and was also the first black man nominated to the Colorado Territory legislature. He was also inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame. Today, stained-glass portrait resides in the House Chamber of the Colorado State Capitol in honor of his contributions to the state.
It always amazes me that some individuals are able to accomplish so much in one lifetime. I personally hope to look back one day and think that I have at least tapped a small portion of the potential God has given me. The cool part is, as a coach once told me, no matter what you have done in the past, you can start trying to use your full potential today! (Sources: HistoryColorado, Colorado Business Hall of Fame, Forbes, Wikipedia)