Boom, Bust, and Fire in Buxton
In Frank Hickenlooper’s 1896 history of Monroe County he writes that the principal settlers of Monroe County came from neighboring Indiana and Illinois and some states to the southeast but not from Missouri. The distance (not in miles) between Missouri and the newly forming counties of Iowa was considerable. “On the breaking out of the Civil War, Monroe County, from her close proximity to the pro-slavery border, was one of those new counties upon which the evil stroke of war fell with a heavy hand.”
A couple decades after the end of the war a community of African Americans was formed in Monroe County by the needs and desires of the Consolidated Coal Company. Wanting to open a new mine in the county to serve exclusively the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company, Ben Buxton sent agents to recruit laborers in a tight labor market learning to flex its muscle. The company mining town of Buxton was founded with majority African American residents but also a substantial number of whites, especially Swedish immigrants.
Between 1900 through the First World War, the town flourished in important ways. During the years of Jim Crow segregation elsewhere in the U.S., Buxton became a site where African American professionals—doctors, dentists, lawyers—and entrepeneurs—store owners—could develop their careers and serve the whole community, black and white. Author Rachelle Chase recently published a book celebrating the best of Buxton entitled Creating the Black Utopia in Buxton, Iowa.
Though the steady employment, professional opportunities, schools, parks, and a wildly successful baseball team all were components of that utopia, the town remained a company town without an elected city government and with no police but that provided by the company. When the market for Iowa’s soft coal declined after World War One never to return—the topsoil was subsequently judged more valuable than the inferior coal—the town of Buxton quickly declined as well. The Buxton’s sold the mine in 1925 to the Superior Coal Company, and Buxton Mine No. 18 was closed in 1927. But African American residents had begun leaving as early as 1911. By 1919 the population—once perhaps as high as 10,000—was a mere 400.
PWM has not yet found a severe weather story about Buxton in the early twentieth century. The town—now a “ghost town”—sat on Bluff Creek and must have had some experience of flooding. Dry seasons and blizzards must also have occurred. What we do know is that a fire accompanied the demise of the town. In 1916 several major fires destroyed parts of the town. While fire destroyed major buildings in other towns in Monroe County, those buildings were quickly rebuilt and the losses were often insured by the growing insurance enterprises in Iowa. The company town of Buxton, in the midst of going bust, may not have had the fire brigades, fire insurance, or support to rebuild that was so in evidence elsewhere in the county. We don’t know.
In the presence of major hazards, weather-related or not, we do know that some buildings, lives, neighborhoods, and towns can and do rebuild, but some do not. It is worth considering who rises from the ashes—or the mud–, who doesn’t, and why.
Sources: on-line: Robert V. Morris, “The Great Buxton,” Iowa Pathways, iptv.org; Justin Surrency, “Author Brings Iowa Ghost Town to Life,” WHO.tv, February 8, 2019; SHSI: Frank Hickenlooper, An Illustrated History of Monroe County, Iowa, Albia, Iowa, 1896; image: iowaculture.gov; University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections: Iowa Coal.