Welcome back to the Hometown Heritage blog! This week’s post marks the third and final post in our 3-part series on the abandoned towns and the history of coal mining in Iowa (you can find the other posts here and here).
This week’s post is by author Rachelle Chase. Even before moving to Iowa, the history of Buxton, Iowa, and its former residents fascinated Rachelle, and now that she has become an Iowa resident, she is determined to help share their story. Rachelle is the author of multiple fiction books and the non-fiction book, Lost Buxton.
In 1900, Consolidation Coal Company established one of the most unique towns in Iowa: Buxton. Spanning 8,600 acres in Monroe County and 1,600 acres in Mahaska County, along with a population that grew to 5,000, Buxton became the largest unincorporated town in Iowa.
Though the town itself was different from most other coal mining towns, Buxton is renowned for its large African American population. For the first 10 years, African Americans made up 55% of the population and remained the largest ethnic group until 1914.
A Planned Town
The typical mining town featured hastily constructed houses, a company store, a small school, a tavern, a union hall, and a church. Buxton was not “typical.” Buxton residents enjoyed 1-1/2 story houses which were maintained by the company, a company store that rivaled department stores, three two-story schoolhouses, a two-story high school, a three-story YMCA, and more than 10 churches.
According the September 18, 1903 edition of the Iowa State Bystander, Superintendent Ben C. Buxton “designed and superintended the laying out of the town, the plans and construction of the buildings, the location and equipment of the mines, the water supply, the drainage and all the many interesting details ...”
Buxton, Iowa, looking north. “Boy’s Y” (rectangular white building, left), YMCA (far left), W.H. Wells Company Store (center). The company store burned down in 1911 and was replaced with a brick building and renamed Monroe Mercantile Company Store. Courtesy: Michael W. Lemberger.
A Prosperous Town
As mentioned in previous posts, mining was often seasonal, which resulted in a reduced demand for coal in the warmer months. This was not the case in Buxton. Since Consolidation Coal Company was owned by the Chicago & North Western Railroad and trains required a constant supply of coal, men in Buxton worked year-round, earning $40-$100 every two weeks. “The miners received excellent pay according to the economy at that time,” said Reuben Gaines Jr., a successful African American businessman in Buxton, in an undated memoir. “In any event or manner the money flowed freely.”
There was no shortage of ways residents in Buxton could spend money. They could shop at more than 40 independent businesses, plus the company store. “You could buy anything in that company store, from a diaper pin to a coffin,” said Kietzman. “The company had its own morticians and own mortuary. They had a shoe department, shoe repair department, furniture, hardware, groceries, cooking ware, clothing, and yard goods. The company store had a bank in it, the company office, a soda fountain where they served lunches.”
A Racially Integrated Town
Former residents—both black and white—agreed that Buxton was integrated and that any segregation that did exist, such as separate churches, was by choice. The company awarded housing on a first-come, first-served basis; 16 of the 85 company store clerks were black; black men and white men worked in the mines in neighboring “rooms”; black children and white children were taught by black and white teachers; and residents attended public events—baseball games, movies, parades, and picnics—sitting or standing wherever they desired.
Believed to be blacksmith’s shop in Buxton, Iowa. Courtesy: State Historical Society of Iowa
Residents also remembered interracial marriages. “There were a lot of interracial marriages down there...” said Oliver Burkett, an African American resident. “There was Charlie King, he was a black man, he married a white woman. Hobe Armstrong, he was a black man and he married a white woman. George Morrison, he was married to a white woman.” Carl Kietzman, previously quoted, was married to an African American woman.
African Americans Thrived
In addition to miners, there were many African American professionals and business owners in Buxton. African American professionals included doctors, lawyers, a dentist, pharmacists, constables, teachers, commercial and rental property owners, an insurance agent, company store clerks and at least one manager, a bank manager, a cigar maker, a postmaster, a mine engineer, two justices of the peace, barbers, a tailor, and many entrepreneurs.
Black-owned businesses included hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, confectionaries, a bakery, drug stores, pool halls, dance halls, a music store, a photography and printing business, a meat market or two, millinery shops, and at least four newspapers.
The End of Buxton
By 1918, the mines near Buxton were almost completely played out and the company had moved operations to Consol, located 18 miles southwest of Buxton, and Bucknell/Haydock. By 1922, Buxton was a ghost town.
Miners and their families had moved to other cities in Iowa and beyond in search of work or had moved to the company’s new towns. But by 1927, the continuing decline in coal demand and the negative perception of Iowa coal, plus labor problems, resulted in the shutdown of remaining mines. Consol and Bucknell/Haydock, like Buxton, were gone.
The company store’s stone warehouse, the largest remaining structure in Buxton, Iowa in 2016. Source: Rachelle Chase
For many African American residents, leaving Buxton was like stepping back in time. Jim Crow laws, segregation, extreme racism, and menial jobs awaited them, leaving many feeling like Susie Robinson. “There’s no place that’s ever going to be like Buxton,” said Robinson. “That’s the best place that I’ve ever been, Buxton.”
If you would like to learn more about Buxton, Rachelle’s book, which uses rare photographs and quotes from former residents to tell its unique history, can be found on Amazon. You can also learn more about Rachelle and her books on her webpage.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our mining series as much as I have, and many thanks to our guest authors Darcy and Rachelle!