The Gaines Family

Albert and Belle Gaines, born as Black slaves in the southern United States, were Weld County, Colorado homesteaders near the community of Coleman, about ten miles north of Briggsdale. The Gaines’ filed their 160 acre homestead claim in approximately 1909 and lived in a sod house that they built with two ten by twelve foot rooms. Their “soddie” homestead was located on the bank of Little Crow Creek. Because their small animals were precious to them Albert cut a hole in the bottom of their wooden door to let the dog, pigs and chickens inside.

In the first years of their life in Coleman many of their neighbors, all White, were uneasy around them. Children would run and hide when they came over or drove by in their mule cart. The Gaines’ were the only Blacks they had ever seen. To amend the situation, the Coleman Community Association sent fruit and cards to their family when someone was ill and at Christmas. Belle Gaines did not understand, and when the custom was explained, she said “Would you do all of that for me?”

One day Albert was at the Coleman Store buying groceries when a White man ahead of him said, “I’ll let the ‘nigger’ go first.” Albert became very upset and let that man know that he was not to be called by that name, and, if anything, should be called a ‘negro’. Albert received a sincere apology from the man who made the comment.

The slavery past of the Gaines’ added to their mystery and to what neighbors considered odd behavior. Many untrue rumors were spread, like “Blacks would never eat with Whites”, and “they used Black magic to catch fish”. When Belle went to visit neighbor women, if they were not visible she would stand off to the side of the porch and tap on the steps with a long stick to get their attention. When her son came to the neighbor’s houses he would call out from a safe distance from the house to those inside. Both habits came from previous experiences in servitude.

As years passed the neighbors all became more accepting, even friends, of the Gaines’. Albert died in 1929 and the community assisted Belle with his burial. Life became difficult for everyone during the 1930s and they found they all needed one another. Belle moved in with neighbors for a time. Then her son Salvadore, or “Sonny”, came up from Denver. They both moved into the sod house on the homestead. It was rumored that Sonny was a bootlegger, selling illegal whiskey. Some days a ‘white flag’ was on a pole at their house, supposedly advertising the availability of whiskey to potential customers.

Belle led an independent and patient life. Once, during the 1930s, she walked all the way to Greeley to pay her taxes, nearly 40 miles. When Merrill Barker was just five years old he met Belle, who was being cared for by his mother. He peppered Belle with many questions about her skin color, foot problems, and clothes. She gently answered each question until Merrill was finally led away by his embarrassed sisters. Years later Merrill Barker wrote the poem “A TRIBUTE TO BELLE GAINES.”

One of their neighbors invited Sonny to go to Greeley with him in his car. When they got there Sonny mentioned that he was hungry. The neighbor offered to buy him lunch in a restaurant. Sonny, however, reminded him that “colored folks” were not served food in Greeley restaurants.

Most of her life Belle Gaines was a plump woman. But, she lost much of her weight in her final years. She moved into an apartment-type cabin constructed for her in Grover by neighbors. Late in 1946 Belle became so ill her friend and neighbor, Miss Horn, admitted her to the Weld County Hospital in Greeley. The nurse, a Southerner, refused to touch Belle. However, Miss Horn informed her that she would report her and the nurse would loose her job, so the nurse relented.

Supposedly, because there was no other hospital that could care for Belle at state expense, Belle was sent for her last 18 months to the Colorado State Hospital, the insane asylum. In 1948 Belle died at the age of 94 of pulmonary tuberculosis and was buried in a [then] unmarked grave in the Briggsdale Cemetery, along with her husband, Albert, and son, Salvadore.

Much of this information was derived from Prairie Pioneers, by Ruby Erickson

Greeley History Museum’s Hazel E. Johnson Research Center #2002.65.0001