Family in North Buxton Ontario

5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum should without a doubt be added to your list of places to see. This post is a shorter introduction to why you should visit, but if you’re looking for a more thorough dive into the people and history of Buxton, check out this post on the Underground Railroad community that your Canadian textbooks omitted.

1) It’s a Pivotal Place in North American History

It is a massive understatement to say the village of North Buxton is important in Canadian and American history. Hold on – have you even heard of North Buxton before? I was neither aware of Buxton nor its significance prior to a recent impromptu visit. If you’re just hearing about Buxton for the first time, I suggest you buckle up because you’re going to be flabbergasted you haven’t learned about this special place before. North Buxton is an Underground Railroad community and, in fact, was deemed the most successful of all planned settlements for Black refugees escaping slavery in the United States.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Break the Chains, North Buxton wood engraved art

I’m hoping you’ve heard and learned about the Underground Railroad in history class already. We covered how slaves escaped to freedom in my classes, but despite its national significance and close proximity, Buxton was never mentioned that I can remember. How mindboggling is that? Why would this not be included in our history classes? Perhaps in these times of great reckoning it’s an important question we need to ask ourselves as Canadians, educators, parents, curious human beings, neighbours, and as Caucasians who have been single-handedly writing lopsided textbooks for far too long.

2) You Can Meet Descendants of Buxton’s Original Residents

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum is as much about the present as it is as the past. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ll interact with descendants of Buxton’s original residents because some of them work at the museum and others still live in Buxton today. What better way to dive into the past and each other, than to hear about the history of a place from a relative or neighbour of those on the page?

Guide Joshua in Buxton Ontario at the Underground Railroad Museum

3) Buxton National Historic Site and Museum Makes History Tangible

Learning the stories of the past so that we can understand the present are some of the most important lessons we can partake in, regardless of our age. What Buxton National Historic Site and Museum does is pull the (very real) stories out of the textbooks and off of the paper and place them in front of you. There are physical displays, both original and representative, of times past that help you feel the weight of what’s being communicated. For example, when you park in front of the visitor welcome centre there is a huge bell to walk by before going inside. That bell was rung each time a Black slave survived the dangerous route to freedom, finally arriving in Buxton. Thinking about it gives me the chills, but being able to touch the bell and know that those touching it over 100 years ago felt their freedom, that knowledge resonates on a whole other level. Even for those of us who love reading, seeing something in person – like the bunk beds pictured below that African slaves were sandwiched and stacked in on ocean crossings – permeates differently.

4) History Has Many Sides And You’ve Only Been Learning One of Them

Life is lived in 3D, but history and schooling of the masses has not been relayed in the same way. With your health you should always get more than one educated opinion. With your finances you should read more than one book. With your education you should be exposed to many different viewpoints but traditional education systems fail to do so. Luckily, it doesn’t have to continue that way. With libraries, cultural centres, and the Internet at our fingertips there’s a plethora of perspectives available to us to sift through and learn from. Learning in person is pretty awesome too – and there’s no shortage of opportunities for that either. And don’t forget – just because something is written in a textbook, doesn’t mean it’s the be-all-end-all. I’m not sure if curiosity can be taught, but it can be encouraged and critical thinking can be developed.

To be honest, I was pretty upset after visiting Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. Actually, I was pissed off. I know that every perspective can’t feasibly be taught in a classroom, but it bamboozled me to think that I hadn’t seen or heard the name “Buxton” once in any of my history classes, despite the relatively short distance from my schools. As a white woman I was embarrassed, because our education system has been written by and for white audiences and that has harmful consequences. This was not a new realization – it was a glaring example of how backwards old systems are. As someone who long ago considered herself well-read, it was another big kick in the arse to realize there’s a whoooole lot more learning I have to do. And as a Canadian who takes pride in being Canadian “because it’s a diverse and inclusive place” (news flash: we’ve still got a long way to go), I was thoroughly disappointed to see how we’d failed to include the Black perspective into our collective national story. Again, luckily there are many opportunities to discover more what we don’t yet know.

5) It’s Quite Possible You Have a Connection to Buxton Too

You know the song, “It’s a Small World After All”? I’m declaring it the theme song of humanity. To support my claim, let me recap visiting the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in 3 parts.

Part 1) Prior to visiting or knowing anything about Buxton, I saw a post of a brand new mural in Toronto from a tour guide I once met in passing and have since connected with online. He knew nothing about the artist or subject since the art-covered wall wasn’t yet completed, but shared it since it was visually stunning. (This is a slight reach in the “connection” side of things, but this mural was painted on Mackenzie House, William Lyon Mackenzie’s former home. Good ol’ former Prime Minister Will was born in Kitchener at what is now known as Woodside National Historic Site. I am from Waterloo Region. Like I said, the connection part here is a bit of a stretch, though I still find it interesting.)

Part 2) The same day I visited the museum, an abandoned building down the road caught my eye and so I started photographing it. A friendly group of men and children across the street said hello, as you do in a small town. I returned the hello and complemented the interesting purple facade, asking if they knew anything about the building. It turns out they knew quite a lot! They told me it used to be the general store but that it had been empty for quite some time, and that the owners’ son and some other relatives still live close by. A woman named Halcyon joined the group who turned out to be a niece of the son of the former owners. While chatting, she opened her phone to show me a brand new mural in Toronto of her relative, Mary Shadd, who was the daughter of the man the street was named after. Ready to connect part 1 and part 2? The mural she showed me was the same one that had popped up on the tour guide’s social media story!!! You can bet I messaged him with this wild story.

A.D. Shadd Road in North Buxton, Ontario

Part 3) Shortly after I visited Buxton and shared what I had learned on social media, a close friend in Kitchener mentioned that they coach with a man named Kenen Shadd and had shared my social media story with him. It turns out the people I had just learned about at the museum, as well as those I had met later down the road were Kenen’s relatives! Talk about mind blown. In a matter of days I went from never having heard the name of this historic village to learning of its continental significance to having a chance encounter with some of the relatives of the historical figures I’d learned about to finding out that one of my best friends coaches with one of the same family’s relatives in my home town! Read that last sentence out loud in one breath because it goes on and on for a reason. Stories like this happen all the time and they never cease surprising me – they dazzle and shock and excite me every time. So, if you go to Buxton National Historic Site and find out that you too are connected somehow, I’d love to hear about it! Pop a comment below with your experience.

Curious To Learn More?

If you live too far away, or if things are still shut down, or just if you would like to read and learn more about Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, check out this post I wrote about Buxton, Ontario.

Visitor Information

The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum is a wheelchair accessible venue open 7 days a week with varying scheduled tours, depending on the time of year. Currently you can pre-book guided 50-minute with covid-sized groups of up to 10 people. To book, visit their website, Facebook, call or email [email protected] and pay with debit or credit. Preschoolers are free, seniors and students are $6, and general admission is $7, and a family is $20. Group rates are also available. Cancellations require 24-hours notice for a full refund. Masks can be purchased for $3 if you forgot yours, sanitizing stations are available, and contact tracing practices are in place to keep everyone healthy.

TEACHERS! In non-covid times the museum offers tours for school groups during and outside of regular hours. If you’re an educator or work in education, Buxton National Historic Site and Museum is a hands-down must-see for all Canadians, especially those living in Ontario. The museum also provides off-site visits where staff arrive in periodic outfits with artifacts to teach groups about slavery and the Buxton settlement.

How to Get There

From Toronto:

  • Hwy 401 W
  • Take exit 81 (Bloomfield Road)
  • South onto Bloomfield Road West
  • Right on County Road 14 / 8 Line
  • Left onto A.D. Shadd Road
  • Destination is on your left
  • ADDRESS: 21975 A.D. Shadd Road, North Buxton, ON N0P1Y0

Sources and Further Reading

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