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Delving into 'Athens of North'

The mining community of Buxton popped up from the grassland on the Mahaska-Monroe county line, living life to the fullest for two-plus decades at the turn of the 20th century before being reclaimed by the rolling green pasture from which it had sprung.
Few traces of the town, now gone nearly four times as long as it existed, remain - but Buxton is still important for turn-of-the-21st-century Southern Iowans.
"This was a multi-racial community with equal opportunity for everyone. It was a place where people lived and worked with little racial friction. I think that's a big message for us today," said Dr. David Gradwohl, speaking Thursday before a capacity crowd at William Penn University in observance of Black History Month.
Gradwohl, now a professor emeritus, became interested in Buxton while teaching anthropology at Iowa State University. He was eager to investigate and write about a mostly untouched topic in Iowa history - the black experience.
"Previously, textbooks in Iowa schools didn't paint a pretty picture of non-whites," Gradwohl said. "They portrayed Indians or Native Americans as savages, while blacks were ignored entirely."
Gradwohl hoped to change that by teaming with a group of sociologists, historians and archeologists to learn about the mining boomtown of Buxton.
Gradwohl started his work in 1980, long after Buxton had become a "ghost town," marked only by a sign in the Lovilia city park - nearly 10 miles away from the actual Buxton town site.
The sign tells visitors that at the turn of the 20th century, coal mining was a major industry in Iowa, and Monroe County was the largest coal producer in the state. Adding to the coal boom was Buxton, established by the Consolidation Coal Co., a subsidiary of the Chicago & North Western Railroad, in 1900.
"Buxton was a planned, organized community," Gradwohl said, showing a plat of the town with a symmetrical criss-cross of streets and neat quarter-acre lots for houses.
"Buxton was a company town," Gradwohl said. "But it offered a better standard of living than many coal camps. It was built for permanency."
The town featured a company store with adjoining savings bank, elementary schools, churches, a high school and two YMCA buildings - complete with a library, lounge, gym, meeting rooms, swimming pool and roller rink/dance floor. Each house had a yard large enough for a garden, Gradwohl said, and maybe even a cow, a pig and a few chickens.
The town superintendent, Ben Buxton, was a humanistic manager, and people of all races were welcome.
"This was unusual," Gradwohl said. "Many mining camps didn't allow African-Americans. There were riots in Boone County when black miners tried to come in."
But in Buxton, blacks, whites and some American Indians lived and worked side by side, Gradwohl said. African-Americans joined whites in the mines and on up the coal company hierarchy.
This led one newspaper of the time, the Iowa State Bystander, to label Buxton as "the Athens of the North."
The town prospered, reaching a peak population of between 5,000 and 6,000 people, until coal deposits dwindled in 1923. That spelled the end of Buxton, and the town's inhabitants moved on, many to other mining towns.
"People bought the houses and dismantled them in a day," Gradwohl said. "Company buildings were scavanged for lumber and other building materials. For the most part, the town disappeared."
And so it was when Gradwohl and his team arrived in 1980.
"I thought we were at the wrong place," Gradwohl said. "My first view of the site revealed only farmland and pasture."
A closer look, however, turned up some building foundations, pieces of roof, a well and cistern, a root cellar.
Gradwohl and his group surveyed the square mile that was once owned by Consolidated Coal and then began their search for artifacts from the former coal town. Archeology students walked back and forth between cornrows, stopping occasionally to pick up small pieces of Buxton history - pottery, glass, stoneware, even a Buxton bottle.
They also found iris and daylilies growing amongst the pasture grasses, remnants of gardens once carefully tended by Buxton residents.
A cemetery, now overgrown with poison ivy, told the tale of some people - including black members of the United Mine Workers of America - whose lives ended before the town's.
After examining these pieces of Buxton still on the surface, Gradwohl and his team dug deeper, partially excavating some portions of the old town site. Their search uncovered much: a soap dish, china, tableware, medicine bottles, a miner's pick, buttons, remnants of shoes and children's toys - all that remained of the families who once called Buxton home.
Those artifacts, maps, old photos and oral histories gathered by Gradwohl's colleagues enabled the group to put together a much clearer picture of that rare community called Buxton.
"Talking with people, you can see the impact of this community," Gradwohl said. "They lived in a place where African-Americans were teachers, doctors, lawyers and dentists - a multi-racial community where the Klan didn't dare show their white sheets."
Buxton was a special place that many residents didn't fully appreciate until it was gone and they had moved on.
"Women who were teachers in Buxton ended up as janitors," Gradwohl said. "I talked to one African-American man who said he moved to Des Moines and stepped back 100 years. It was quite chilling for me to hear that."
Even today, Gradwohl said, it seems that communities could still learn much from Buxton.
"I think the secret of Buxton was in the fact that you tend to view people as people when they live next door," he said. "You get to know people and they're not the 'other.'
"That," he concluded, "is the biggest factor in how people get along."

(By SALLY FINDER-KOZIOL - The Oskaloosa Herald 02/18/2003 )


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