Essay

Ghost Town Legacy

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Buxton, Iowa

Could be an early 20th century shot from a lot of places on the map. There’s a hill up the street, but the place looks like any of a thousand small towns from almost any region of the continent. That this town is in Iowa makes little difference; the place looks positively generic.

But if I could bring you up close to those folks on the wooden sidewalks, you’d soon note something peculiar–not impossible, but unique. The residents of this burg are African-American. The town is in Iowa, and its residents are black. Mostly.

The place is named Buxton, and, should you look for it, you won’t find it because it is no more. The place went boom/bust, its life created, fueled, and eventually destroyed by coal, by mining. For a time in the early years of the 20th century, as many as 10,000 people lived in Buxton; most of the men were miners, who, hard as it is to believe, earned wages that allowed them a higher standard of living than African-Americans almost anywhere else in the country, surely in the state.

In an age-old pattern being relived every day by thousands, even millions of immigrant workers from south of our national borders, once upon a time African-American workers recruited from Southern states were promised a good living wage and equal pay for equal work in a town in Iowa, if they’d make the trip north. The engine of all that prosperity–and the prosperity was considerable–was the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, who needed coal. Significant deposits were available in Monroe County, and mining operations were opened. Buxton was born. It’s immigrant residents from the South were strike-breakers who took jobs white folks didn’t want at the wages the company was willing to pay. When white workers walked off the job, the company simply hired cheaper labor. Does all of this sound familiar?

Some white folks considered Buxton a black town–many of its professionals were also black: school teachers, medical professionals, and store owners. But historians have made clear that its population was multi-racial, multi-ethnic. Employment opportunities were by no means limited to ex-slaves or their kids from south of Mason/Dixon. Census records indicate lots of white folks lived in Buxton too, many recently arrived in this country from Europe, men and women perhaps less given to racial prejudices.

At the time in Iowa, by population, Buxton could well have been considered a city. But once World War I ended and the need for coal dropped off, workers began to lose those high-paying jobs and, one after another, take a road not unlike that one pictured above straight out of town. When finally the mines shut down, the city did too. Today, what was once the largest coal-mining city west of the Mississippi, simply is no more.

These days, just like every four years, you cannot believe everything you hear–and you hear a lot. Just a few weeks ago in Cedar Rapids, Democratic Presidential candidate, Cory Booker, a New Jersey-ite who doesn’t look at all like your ordinary run-of-the-mill Iowan, told an audience I was sitting in that his grandmother was born here in this state, in Iowa. No one laughed. But it certainly seemed preposterous to me, unless, of course, his grandmother was white, which she wasn’t. She was a widow, with ten kids, and she moved north from Alabama to live, quite comfortably, in Buxton, Iowa.

Senator Cory Booker is not making things up for the caucuses. Once upon a time a booming little city in southern Iowa attracted hundreds, even thousands, of black folk from down south. For a couple of decades, people from every tribe and nation lived in what might have been for many of them unimagined prosperity in a mining town named Buxton, Iowa.

Amazing story. Amazing. And wonderful.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

9 Comments

  • Pam Adams says:

    Your tie to Cory Booker is quite interesting. It is interesting to hear such unusual stories about Iowa. Keep it up.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you. Iowa always surprises.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Intriguing story. Thanks, Jim. And now I wonder: where did they go when they left the bust town, when they took that street up and out of Buxton? Another story for us, perhaps? Or many stories?

  • JoAnne Wagner says:

    Cory Booker’s ancestry is revealed further in an episode of Finding your Roots, the popular TV series hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. If you like surprises, watch his show. A good Iowan friend of mine once discovered she had African American ancestors at the dentist’s office. The arch of the roof of her mouth was unmistakably African American, her dentist told her.

  • Carol Jane Van Klompenburg says:

    I am confused. If Booker’s mother moved to Iowa as a widow with 10 kids, how is it that she was born here? What am I missing?
    Otherwise, great story. Enjoy your explorations of the Midwest.

  • James Schaap says:

    Oops. I misspoke. Sen. Booker says his great-great grandmother moved to Iowa with her children. What I heard him say was that his grandmother was born in Iowa. Thanks for spotting the error.

  • Henry Baron says:

    You’re still teaching, Jim! And always interestingly. Keep it up!

    • Jim Schaap says:

      Henry, it’s just after six, the sun is coming up behind me, casting its Midas glow over the country all around, and I’m sitting here with your book, The Comfort Bird, just about ready to finish it. Loving it. Just loving it. Just thought I’d mention it.

  • David E Timmer says:

    An excellent, well-illustrated book on Buxton is CREATING THE BLACK UTOPIA OF BUXTON, IOWA by Rachelle Chase (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019). She also has a website, LostBuxton.com. Ms. Chase spoke about Buxton recently in Pella. She pointed out that the KKK was a strong presence in Iowa during the early decades of the 20th century. One local white resident estimated that “just a – oh, maybe a third of the people belonged.” But Buxton seemed to escape most of the segregationist influence. The most segregated time in Buxton? You guessed it . . . Sunday morning!

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