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Exploring Buried Buxton: Archaeology of an Abandoned Iowa Coal Mining Town with a Large Black Population

Exploring Buried Buxton: Archaeology of an Abandoned Iowa Coal Mining Town with a Large Black Population

by David M. Gradwohl

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Few sources before have dealt with the archaeology of African American settlements outside the Atlantic seaboard and the southern states. This book describes in detail the archaeological investigations conducted at the town site of Buxton, Iowa, a coal mining community inhabited by a significantly large population of blacks between 1900 and 1925.



Few sources before have dealt with the archaeology of African American settlements outside the Atlantic seaboard and the southern states. This book describes in detail the archaeological investigations conducted at the town site of Buxton, Iowa, a coal mining community inhabited by a significantly large population of blacks between 1900 and 1925.

David Gradwohl and Nancy Osborn present the archaeology of Buxton from “the group up” to articulate the material remains with the data acquired from archival studies and oral history interviews. They also examine the broader significance of the Buxton experience in terms of those who lived there and their children and grandchildren who have heard about Buxton all their lives.

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University of Iowa Press
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Exploring Buried Buxton Archaeology of an Abandoned Iowa Coal Mining Town with a Large Black Population
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 1984 Iowa State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-574-4

Chapter One Introduction

BUXTON, IOWA, was a coal mining town that existed in Monroe County throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century (see Fig. 1). This town was established in 1900 by the Consolidation Coal Company, a subsidiary of the Chicago and North Western Railroad. For at least 20 years the miners, many of whom were black, commuted daily by train from Buxton to the outlying mine operations. There they dug coal for their patron company, whose continuous needs provided relatively stable employment for the miners and for the support businesses and professional people who also resided in Buxton. Ultimately the Consolidation Coal Company changed its base of operations, and the inhabitants of Buxton were forced to move on to other mining communities or to cities where they took up new lives and different economic pursuits. The townsite was abandoned during the 1920s and the land was quickly reclaimed for dry land farming and stock raising activities.

Some things about the Buxton settlement are known historically through written documents, including census records and newspaper accounts; photographic evidence (see Fig. 2), including formal portraits and snapshots; and the remembrances of former residents, which constitute an oral history of the former community. As was typical of many mining towns, Buxton's residents included white people of various national origins and ethnic backgrounds. This community's population was unusual, if not unique, however, in its large component of black people, which counted not only miners but also merchants, accountants, secretaries, school teachers and principals, physicians, dentists, druggists, and lawyers, in addition to men and women in other businesses and professions.

Unlike many other unincorporated communities of coal miners in this region, Buxton was not a "camp;" but rather a town with a centralized business and commercial district (see Fig. 3), planned streets, and relatively commodious houses set out on numbered, quarter-acre lots in a well-established settlement pattern (see Fig. 4). Today few obvious vestiges of the town remain. The houses and other buildings have been dismantled or moved away and the long-abandoned streets have been blurred by erosion and other natural agencies of time (see Fig. 5). Farm ponds and agricultural terraces have been built in this locality to make modern land uses more effective, and the site of the former town is now the scene of pastures and of fields for corn, soybeans, oats, and hay. Livestock now graze where miners once descended upon the train depot to ride out to the coal mines while their wives pursued homemaking activities and business enterprises and their children strolled to school. Tractors now cultivate the land where horse-drawn buggies and, later, Model T Fords negotiated Buxton's ordered, but often mud-rutted, streets. Although a mere half century or so has passed since the demise of Buxton, the townsite is now an archaeological site as much as any such places of human activities that were abandoned and buried hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Scientific questions still remain, however, as popular rumors run rampant about the life and times in Buxton. Was the population of the town four thousand-or was it six thousand, or nine thousand, or even twelve thousand? Was the population predominantly "colored," as one said in those days in place of the more currently-used terms "black" or "African-American"? These are questions to ponder. One man who was a coal miner in his youth at Buxton recently maintained that "there was not any black and white trouble in Buxton and everybody was a person." A woman who spent her childhood in Buxton now recalls that Buxton "was a kind of heaven to me, in a way of speaking, 'cause the memories were so nice." Such philosophical statements are challenges to those interested in understanding the nature of race relations and utopian communities in the United States.

Still other questions assault the archaeologist standing in the middle of a patently featureless pasture, holding a panoramic view of Buxton as photographed about 1907 in one hand and in the other hand a town plat map drawn up in 1919. Where is Main Street? Were there indeed houses on each numbered, quarter-acre lot along East Third Street-wherever that might be, up the hillslope? Where did the former residents throw out their garbage? Could we find their trash dumps? Would the refuse tell us anything about ethnicity in the town or about the generally prosperous economic conditions that reportedly existed in Buxton?

The systematic exploration of these and other questions concerning the town of Buxton was initiated under the auspices of a federal grant from the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service to Iowa State University. The project, undertaken in cooperation with members of the Buxton, Iowa Club Inc., was facilitated by the Iowa State Historical Department's Division of Historic Preservation. Three principal approaches were utilized in the project: archival studies, oral histories, and archaeological investigations. Principal academic disciplines represented in the project included history, sociology, and archaeology.

Among the general aims of the interdisciplinary project were goals to (1) reconstruct more fully the history of Buxton, Iowa-its peoples, cultures, and contributions; (2) establish programs giving black high school and college students an opportunity to learn about their cultural heritage; and (3) facilitate future recognition and protection of the townsite. In line with these interdisciplinary goals, specific objectives for the archaeological investigation of Buxton included (1) conducting field surveys and test excavations at the townsite, (2) instituting an archaeological internship training program, with recruitment of interns being targeted principally towards descendants of former Buxton residents, and (3) collecting and documenting material cultural data of sufficient quality and quantity such that the townsite might be nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Archaeological investigations were conducted within the townsite formerly owned by the Consolidation Coal Company: Section 4, T 73 N, R 17 W Bluff Creek Township, Monroe County, Iowa. These investigations involved historical archaeology, that is, the study of human behavior in the past primarily through the analysis of material remains as guided and assisted by the data known from written records and oral history. Among the primary sources for archaeological investigations are portable objects (such as tools, utensils, items of clothing), structural artifacts (such as building foundations, window glass, bricks and mortar, streets), and ecofacts (such as food remains or evidences of the past environments in which humans lived). These data collected by the archaeologists supplement written records, photographs, and the memories of informants in reconstructing the cultural patterns and lifeways which obtained in Buxton during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

This book reviews the archaeological field and laboratory investigations, describes the nature of the evidence encountered, and formulates some general, though preliminary, reconstructions concerning the human activities that occurred in Buxton, as reflected in the material residues of the past. It is hoped that the Buxton case study ultimately will join the nineteenth-century black urban community of Weeksville-situated in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York (Bridges and Salwen 1980)-in reawakening, if not kindling, an awareness and interest in preserving ethnic history and cultural resources at local and regional levels.

The following discussion is divided into seven sections:

1. Review of the scope and schedule of the archaeological investigations at Buxton.

2. Consideration of the geographical context of Buxton and its position in the economic geology of the region.

3. Summary of the information obtained from the archaeological reconnaissance survey of the Buxton townsite. The general procedures of the survey are discussed in addition to a review of the data discovered in individual site survey units within the larger reconnaissance units.

4. Discussion of the results of the archaeological test excavations in the former downtown area of Buxton. This summarizes our present knowledge of the structural evidence for such buildings as the company store and stone warehouse, the pay office, the YMCA buildings, the power house, the White House Hotel, and other business/commercial buildings. In addition, several domestic areas are described, including the area around a privately owned house southeast of the company store and an area between the former East Third and East Fourth streets where company-owned houses once stood.

5. Summary of information pertaining to portable artifacts collected at the Buxton townsite. Artifacts made of ceramics, glass, metal, celluloid, rubber, shell, bone, leather, hair, textiles, paper, stone, miscellaneous materials, and composite materials are included. Remains of plants and animals are also reviewed.

6. A look at the sociocultural system of Buxton from the standpoint of historical archaeology. This discussion integrates data pertaining to (a) business, commercial, and occupational enterprises, (b) household and domestic activities, (c) transportation and communal utilities and facilities, (d) recreational activities, and (e) religious and mortuary patterns.

7. Summary and general conclusions pertaining to the quality and extent of the Buxton townsite from the viewpoint of archaeology, and to the significance of the Buxton experience from an archaeological and larger anthropological perspective.

Chapter Two Scope and schedule of archaeological investigations

AN initial task of the archaeologists involved perusing published accounts of Buxton in various regional journals, issues of the Iowa State Bystander, and other newspapers. Equally important was the inspection of photographs from both private collections and the Iowa State Historical Department. As transcripts of the interviews being conducted by the historians and sociologists were completed, the archaeologists reviewed these records and compiled lists of items that might be represented by the portable artifacts, structural remains, and ecofacts at the Buxton townsite. All of these historical sources were studied primarily from the standpoint of deriving specific information pertaining to the material cultural patterns of Buxton: for exam ple, the settlement plan of the town, the nature of company houses, the construction of privately-owned homes, the location and size of public buildings, the types of food and clothing being sold in the company store and other commercial establishments in the town, and the kinds of sanitation and transportation facilities available to the residents of this community.

In addition, the archaeologists engaged independently in informal discussions on selected topics with various informants, many of whom also were being interviewed by the historians and sociologists. Of great assistance, for example, was specific information provided by Archie Harris-who grew up and worked in Buxton and still lives within the section of land comprising the abandoned townsite-and by Dorothy Neal Collier and Harvey Lewis, members of the Buxton, Iowa Club Inc., who formerly resided in the town. Many others, particularly Loren Blomgren, Mabel Blomgren, Jack Jones, and the families of Pete Keegel, Case Keegel, and Joe Keegel, shared photographs and other pertinent data with the archaeologists. These people and others in the Buxton locality were able to provide a good deal of information about locations of streets and buildings prior to the abandonment of the town and the agricultural modification of the land.


The archaeologists were introduced to the Buxton townsite during June of 1980 by William L. Collier, member of the Buxton, Iowa Club Inc. (see Fig. 6). William was born and reared in Des Moines, where he is now a professional for a steel manufacturing firm (see Fig. 7). William's mother is Dorothy Neal Collier, who was born and spent her childhood years in Buxton (see Fig. 8). Dorothy, one of the founders of the Buxton, Iowa Club Inc., has long been engaged in research on Buxton and has shared her information with others for many years. Dorothy's father was George Neal, who came to Buxton in its early days and worked as a tailor in a shop in Coopertown, a "suburb" in Mahaska County across the road from the north end of the Buxton townsite (see Fig. 9). George Neal is also remembered as a notable member of the Buxton Wonders baseball team (see Fig. 14).

In guiding the archaeologists around the former business and commercial district of Buxton, William Collier pointed out the visible ruins of the company store. His mother, he said, had told him her memories of walking along the cinder road from George Neal's house on Gobbler's Nob to the company store. Many items in the company store had attracted the young girl's eye: candy, dolls, toys, and fruit produce kept fresh by an automatic sprinkling system. William also located a linear gully along the hillslope and, referring to the 1919 plat map, identified the present surface feature as the former alignment of Buxton's Main Street (see Fig. 11). Here he noted the steep slope that his mother refers to as Coal Chute Hill. Old photographs of Buxton show the mechanical system that conveyed coal from the railroad tracks to residential neighborhoods at the top of the hill (see Fig. 12). Dorothy Collier had recalled to William stories about how she and other Buxton "kids" used to sled down this hill in the winters of her childhood.

Other structural remains at the Buxton townsite were identified by William Collier on that initial visit. The ruins observed included portions of the Consolidation Coal Company's stone warehouse, a brick vault, the YMCA buildings, and some foundations said to be surviving portions of the White House Hotel. Identification of these extant features on the land surface provided a basis for analyzing the 1919 plat map of the town and for determining the degree of association of streets and buildings shown on that document with the vestiges of the community revealed in aerial photographs taken of Section 4 in 1937 and 1977.

This initial field visit was not only instructive in previewing some of the physical characteristics of the site but also in comprehending the magnitude of attempting to understand a community that once extended over more than a square mile in space. Perhaps more importantly, the visit provided a dramatic linkage between objects and people. Chunks of concrete, scattered bricks, linear depressions in the ground, pieces of broken china, and soda pop bottles were not simply generalized and impersonal fragments of material culture from some bygone era. They were part of a specific past remembered individually by people who once lived in this space and now were scattered around Iowa and farther afield throughout the United States. Similarly, the meaning of the Buxton experience extended beyond the memories of specific individuals who once lived there to the lives of their children and their perceptions of family history and cultural heritage. The Buxton project did not just consist of an academic pursuit of esoteric knowledge and the objective combination of documentary studies, oral history, and archaeology. It was part of an ongoing process in which individuals and groups identify in the present by reference to their shared experiences of the past.


Excerpted from Exploring Buried Buxton by DAVID M. GRADWOHL NANCY M. OSBORN Copyright © 1984 by Iowa State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Gradwohl is professor emeritus of anthropology at Iowa State University and former chair of the university's American Indian Studies Program.

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