Buxton: A Lost Utopia
What key decisions influence whether a community thrives?
Most early Iowa settlers lived on farms. Some, however, were merchants, lawyers, doctors, newspaper publishers, ministers or craftsmen who lived in the new towns springing up across the prairie. Not all the towns survived. Some never attracted many people and others lost population when conditions changed. The result was Iowa “ghost towns” that exist across the state.
Iowa Ghost Towns
Most early towns came into existence to serve the surrounding farm population. When a trip to town could take several hours, farmers wanted services and supplies close at hand, and towns sprang up every five to six miles apart. The coming of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s both helped and hindered Iowa. Towns along the rail lines became trading centers where merchants could receive goods from the East and farmers could sell their cattle and hogs for shipment to eastern cities. Towns that had no railroad connection lost customers and usually became ghost towns. Sometimes the railroads even created towns due to the fact that steam engines needed coal and water. This impacted western Iowa especially as rail lines arrived before major waves of population.
Some towns were created with a special purpose. This is especially true of those based upon coal mining, a big industry in Iowa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The railroads again were a major factor because trains were the main buyers for Iowa coal. Many small coal mines sprang up in southeastern and central Iowa. Miners and their families occupied cheap housing nearby, and the rail company sometimes operated general stores and other services for their workers. When the coal ran out in the mine, the mine closed and the miners moved away. Sometimes the houses and other buildings were loaded onto trains and moved to a nearby location where a new mine was opening up.
The town of Buxton in southeastern Iowa was unique in that a majority of its residents were African American. The Consolidation Coal Company worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Having a hard time recruiting white miners, Consolidation Coal sent agents to southern states to hire African-American workers. In 1873, it founded the town of Buxton and opened nearby mines. It grew quickly and, according to one source, became the largest coal town west of the Mississippi. In the 1905 census, the town boasted 2,700 African American and 1,991 whites. The town supported African-American doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and an African-American YMCA with a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and many programs for Buxton residents. The town was proud of its baseball team, the Buxton Wonders. White residents included immigrants from Sweden and elsewhere, and they existed peacefully with the African-Americans throughout the community’s history.
Buxton coal production peaked during WWI but afterward, mechanization and conversion of train engines to diesel fuel decreased the demand for coal. Several severe fires ravaged the community and the mines. By 1919, Buxton’s population had declined to only 400. The last mine closed in 1927. Residents moved away but fondly remembered their Buxton days. Many African Americans moved to Des Moines or Waterloo. Very little physical evidence of the town remains today.
There have been many articles and several books written about this unique African-American experience in rural Iowa. While it is only one of Iowa’s many ghost towns, it is probably the most famous.
How was Buxton a unique community?
- Benjamin C. Buxton, Founder of Buxton, Iowa, Date Unknown (Image)
- Postcard View of Center Street in Buxton, 1908 (Image)
- Panoramic View of Buxton, 1910 (Image)
- Postcard Showing Buxton Coal Bank in Shaft of #12 Mine, 1910 (Image)
- Postcard of Miner with Mule-Drawn Cart in a Shaft of Buxton’s #12 Mine, 1910 (Image)
- Monroe Mercantile Company Opening, 1911 (Image)
- Monroe Mercantile Company Interior, 1911 (Image)
- Monroe Mercantile Company Employees, 1911 (Image)
- Map of Bluff Creek Township (Buxton), 1919 (Map)
In what ways did Buxton prosper?
- Buxton Wonders Baseball Team, 1915 (Image)
- Interview of Paul Wilson, Born in Buxton, May 13, 1992 (Document)
- “Back to Buxton,” July 1, 2009 (Document)
What caused Buxton to turn into a ghost town?
- Aftermath of Explosion in Buxton’s #12 Mine, Date Unknown (Image)
- "Buxton Review" in the Iowa State Bystander, June 26, 1914 (Document)
- "As I Remember" by Minnie London, 1940 (Document)
- Buxton: Work and Racial Equality in a Coal Mining Community, 1987 (Document)
Benjamin C. Buxton, Founder of Buxton, Iowa, Date Unknown
Postcard View of Center Street in Buxton, 1908
Panoramic View of Buxton, 1910
Postcard Showing Buxton Coal Bank in Shaft of #12 Mine, 1910
Postcard of Miner with Mule-Drawn Cart in a Shaft of Buxton’s #12 Mine, 1910
Monroe Mercantile Company Opening, 1911
Monroe Mercantile Company Interior, 1911
Monroe Mercantile Company Employees, 1911
Map of Bluff Creek Township (Buxton), 1919
Buxton Wonders Baseball Team, 1915
Interview of Paul Wilson, Born in Buxton, May 13, 1992
“Back to Buxton,” July 1, 2009
Aftermath of Explosion in Buxton’s #12 Mine, Date Unknown
“Buxton Review” in the Iowa State Bystander, June 26, 1914
“As I Remember” by Minnie London, 1940
Buxton: Work and Racial Equality in a Coal Mining Community, 1987
- Images of America: Lost Buxton by Rachelle Chase
This recent publication is loaded with rich images and meaningful quotes from dozens of Buxton citizens. The author synthesizes many sources to concisely tell the story of Buxton with meaningful details.
- Buxton: Work and Racial Equality in a Coal Mining Community by Dorothy Schwieder
Professor, researcher and author Dorothy Schwieder provides details and explanations of many causes and effects of the formation and decline of Buxton.
- CRI News Package: Home from Buxton, Iowa
This two-minute video tours a house from Buxton that was moved to Oskaloosa around the 1920s, and then was moved again to the Nelson Pioneer Farm during October 2008.
- "Searching for Buxton" Documentary (Part One and Part Two)
A young African-American goes searching for his family's past in a long-disappeared Iowa coal mining town and discovers that much of the prosperity and goodwill his relatives enjoyed nearly a century ago is elusive today. Narrated by Simon Estes.
- Reclaiming Iowa’s Abandoned Coal Mine Lands
This eight-minute Iowa Outdoors video focuses on Iowa's coal mines. A century ago, southern Iowa was home to hundreds of surface coal mines. As the coal boom died so did the companies that mined for it, leaving those mines abandoned and open to the elements. Today, decades after the industry died, efforts slowly continue to clean up the deserted mines and reclaim the ground that was once rich with coal.
- "Editor's Observations" from the Iowa State Bystander
This October 29, 1909, newspaper article by John Lay Thompson, editor of the Iowa State Bystander, describes the success of African-Americans in Buxton, Iowa. During an era of Jim Crow laws in the South, those who were recruited from Virginia to come and work for Consolidation Coal Company experienced a far different reality in Buxton than they had in Virginia. In his editor’s column, Thompson writes about the demographics, businesses, prominent citizens and services located in Buxton, Iowa, in or around 1909.
- "The Buxton Souvenir Number" from the Iowa State Bystander
This additional resource includes eight newspaper pages of photos and articles about Buxton that were published in the Iowa State Bystander on December 6, 1907.
- C. & N.W. Ry. Depot in Buxton, Iowa
A photo of a train depot for Chicago and Northwestern Railway in Buxton, Iowa, in 1905.
- Additional Buxton Photographs from the State Historical Society of Iowa
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (2nd Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for 2nd grade students.
- SS.2.7. Explain how people from different groups work through conflict when solving a community problem.
- SS.2.10. Determine effective strategies for solving particular community problems.
- SS.2.12. Identify how people use natural resources to produce goods and services.
- SS.2.16. Using maps, globes, and other simple geographic models, evaluate routes for people or goods that consider environmental characteristics.
- SS.2.17. Explain how environmental characteristics impact the location of particular places
- SS.2.18. Describe how the choices people make impact local and distant environments
- SS.2.20. Determine the influence of particular individuals and groups who have shaped significant historical change.
- SS.2.24. Describe the intended and unintended consequences of using Iowa’s natural resources.