The Great Buxton
The history of Buxton, Iowa, is unique for its times. Racial integration and harmony existed there at a time when racial tolerance was the exception and not the rule. Buxton Coal Mine No. 18 lasted only 20 years, 1900-1920. But its impact on Iowa and America remains through books, essays and historical accounts.
Mr. Buxton Starts a Town
During the mid-1880’s Iowa welcomed a man named J.E. Buxton who was an agent for the Consolidated Coal Company (CCC). The CCC was a part of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company. It wanted Iowa coal to fuel its trains. After opening several coal mines in Iowa, J.E. Buxton’s successor and son, Ben, was confronted with a scarcity of white laborers, strikes and increased demand for workers from competitors.
The company needed strike breakers and cheap labor. The idea surfaced to recruit black workers from the South. CCC sent a team of agents including H.A. Armstrong to Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee to recruit black workers and also hired workers from nearby coal mines like Muchakinock, Iowa. As the mines at Muchakinock were dying, the railroad ran a line into Monroe County and Ben Buxton founded the town in his name in 1873. Unlike other coal towns, the railroad purchased all the Buxton coal—creating constant work at high wages.
By 1900 Buxton was thriving and became the largest coal mining town west of the Mississippi River. It also was the largest unincorporated city in the nation. By 1905 Buxton’s citizens consisted of 2,700 blacks and 1,991 whites. By 1906 the Ackers Coal Company and the Regal Coal Company opened mines near Buxton. The 1,183,143 tons of coal produced that year made Monroe County the largest coal producer in Iowa.
By 1910 CCC had built 2,000 homes which many residents enlarged. The thriving business and professional community was an opportunity for many blacks to start and own businesses. The company built schools, parks and other establishments. As an unincorporated city, Buxton had no city council, mayor or police. Two company security guards made up the "police force." All this made Buxton an interesting—but sometimes dangerous—place to live.
In 1901 the Monroe Mercantile Company opened as the largest department store employing over 100 Buxton citizens until it burned down in 1911. The company built Buxton Island Park in 1902 and a YMCA with an indoor swimming pool in 1903. In addition to the black majority, Swedes and Australians were both sizable populations. The talk of the town was the Buxton Wonders baseball team who defeated opponents across Iowa.
Good Times in Buxton
As area mines increased production, CCC eventually employed 1,800 men who were paid in gold and silver for an average of five workdays a week. Miners earned $50 to $100 per week. Expensive clothes and free spending were not uncommon. In 1913 mine No.18 opened south of Buxton. Its workers received modern and heavy equipment allowing a hoisting record of 3,774 tons of coal in eight hours.
Buxton’s black professional community was impressive, including the company physician, Dr. E.A. Carter, and prominent attorneys, George H. Woodson and Samuel Joe Brown. Dr. Carter was the first black to graduate the University of Iowa Medical School. Woodson had co-founded the Niagra Movement in 1905. The Niagra Movement became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Woodson, along with Brown and three others, would found the National Bar Association in 1925, an organization which allowed membership to any lawyer, "regardless of race, creed or sex.."
The Decline Begins
As World War I began in France 1914, Buxton reached its peak in coal production. As demand soared for coal, Buxton's black residents experienced a standard of living unheard of at the time. By the time the black soldiers returned in 1919, coal demand had decreased. Buxton had begun its decline. Blacks had begun leaving Buxton in 1911. Whites became the majority by 1915.
After several huge fires destroyed parts of Buxton in 1916, more residents began to leave. Its population was estimated at only 400 by 1919. In 1923 CCC moved its headquarters to Haydock. It sold out to the Superior Coal Company in 1925. In 1927 Buxton Mine No.18 was closed. The incredible journey of racial equity was over. Buxton remains a proud and unusual moment of Iowa history.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Robert V. Morris.