Historic original log cabin at Buxton Museum

Buxton Ontario: The Important Underground Railroad Community Your Canadian Textbook Omitted

The other day I went on an adventure to a place I’d never heard of. In fact, I said yes to the day trip knowing little else other than it was going to mean a couple of hours in the car and that I’d get to learn about local history. I didn’t know which direction I’d be travelling in. I didn’t know what local history we’d be delving into. It was impulsive and exciting in an otherwise extremely uneventful summer (and spring and winter…).

Why Did I Visit Buxton Ontario?

I needed this – something unknown, some movement, an opportunity for growth and newness. The day turned out to be all of that and more – especially when our arrival into town included seeing a man drive his tractor down the road wearing a Straight Outta Compton hoodie…or so I thought. But more on him and his sweater later.

The call to adventure came from history buff and hyperlocal travel advocate, Juanita, the owner of Stroll Walking Tours. She had wanted to visit Buxton National Historic Site for some time and, lucky for us, shared the opportunity when it finally became available. A mixture of family, friends, and neighbours, ranging from teenagers to adult folk hopped in their cars and met there for a socially-distanced morning of learning and exploration.

On the Road to Buxton Ontario

History of North Buxton

Originally known as the Elgin or Buxton Settlement, the village of North Buxton is hugely important in Canadian and North American history. If this is a surprise to you, it was to me too. This is both unfortunate and embarrassing because it shouldn’t be a surprise. 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.

Most likely you’ve learned about the Underground Railroad in history class growing up. I did. But, despite its national significance and close proximity to Waterloo Region, I had never heard of Buxton. Why would this not be included in our history classes, especially when it’s so incredibly tangible? Perhaps in these times of great reckoning it’s another serious question we need to ask ourselves as Canadians, educators, parents, curious human beings, neighbours, and as white people who have been single-handedly writing lopsided textbooks for far too long.

In 1849, between 9,000 and 11,500 acres were purchased by Irish Presbyterian Reverend and abolitionist William King and 15 former American slaves, along with other Underground Railroad refugees (UGRR) and abolitionists. Together, they made up the Elgin Association, which was a joint stock company. A joint stock company is:“a business owned by its investors, with each investor owning a share based on the amount of stock purchased. … The owners of a joint-stock company expect to share in its profits.” (www.Investopedia.com). The objective behind the land purchase was to provide Black refugees fleeing the US the chance to have a life of freedom. The purchase was a huge move with even grander ripple effects. It gave countless individuals autonomy over their daily lives, access to sought-after education, and the freedom to live as humans should be able to – by their own volition.

At its peak population, 2,000 African descendants lived on the Buxton Settlement. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, when Buxton was a part of Canada West, it was one of the last Underground Railroad stops. When you visit the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, one of the first things you will notice is a huge bell in front of the visitors’ centre. The Buxton Liberty Bell was a gift to the community in 1850 from a Black Presbyterian congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During its time as a settlement, the bell was rung the moment a slave reached freedom on its grounds, to warn of emergencies, and to greet the beginning and ending of each day. A replica of this bell was created by Newmarket artist Brett Davis for Queens Park in Toronto in 2007 for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It serves as a reminder of the responsibility we have to learn more about the dangerous journeys former slaves endured.

Buxton Freedom Bell Underground Railroad

The residents of Buxton Settlement were a self-sufficient community. They built their own homes in as little as a day – similar to how quickly Mennonite communities have barn raisings. It’s amazing what can happen when people work together! In addition to their homes (which dwarf modern Toronto apartments), Buxtonians ran their own blacksmith shop, gristmill, lumber industry, pearl ash factory, general store, bank, and shoe factory, not to mention 3 esteemed integrated schools.

Then, in 1863 during the American Civil War, 70 men left to fight with the Union Army with the Emancipation Proclamation in place. With the hope of finding lost family members and friends, many more people from Buxton returned to the States to help with the Reconstruction (1865-1877). Thanks to the outstanding education they had received in Buxton, several of these individuals became prominent and influential community members in the States.

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum is, without a doubt, a place you need to visit. Several employees have familial ties to the village, which was the case with our young guide, Joshua. His great-grandmother was a teacher and principal at the school and his grandfather was also her pupil. The museum is a public resource for those who are curious to learn more about the Buxton Settlement and Black genealogy. Both the museum and the heritage district are the first official Canadian partners of the American organization, “National Parks Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom“, though I couldn’t find it on the website’s interactive map of partners.

Guide Joshua in Buxton Ontario at the Underground Railroad Museum

The grounds are central to the Buxton community and include historically significant buildings, as well as a covered picnic area, playground, baseball diamond, basketball court, barbecue area, public washrooms, and large parking lot. The museum is comprised of three buildings: a log cabin, a barn, and a schoolhouse.

1852 Colbert-Henderson Log Cabin

The 1852 log cabin belonged to a bachelor named Henry Colbert. It is the oldest home on the settlement and, if I’m not mistaken, also the last surviving one. All homes in the settlement were required to follow certain building standards that Reverend King instated to counter racist ideas about Blacks and Black settlements, and to instill pride and unity throughout the community. The homes measured at least 18′ x 24′ x 12 and were constructed with ash wood since there was ample supply and it is a natural insulator. Homes needed to be 33 feet from the road, with 4 rooms: 1 adult bedroom, 1 children’s bedroom (regardless if there were children in the home or not), a kitchen, and a living area. They were also required to have a picket fence and a visible front yard vegetable and flower garden.

The Colbert-Henderson Log Cabin is furnished with donated items from the time period to set the stage for visitors. Ethel Henderson was the last private homeowner of the old log cabin and in 1986 it was relocated to its current address at the museum. The fireplace isn’t original or a part of the strict building rules, but would have been added by one of the later inhabitants.

Fireplace in log cabin at Buxton Museum

1853 Barn

Abraham Doras Shadd, the famous abolitionist and Buxton resident, built the barn that now rests on the museum grounds. It was moved from its original location to preserve the deteriorating barn and only the hay loft remains. As you can see in the image below, it’s full of old farming tools from saddles and saddle makers to saws, corn huskers, and machines used for making cider and in potash factories. The tools would have been made by the settlement’s self-sufficient inhabitants.

Tools in preserved barn in Buxton, Ontario

1861 Schoolhouse

Another national treasure proudly stands in North Buxton, clothed in its original blue. The one-room schoolhouse is the last standing schoolhouse in Canada built by former slaves. When you enter it you can imagine the children putting their outdoor belongings away in the side rooms, boys the right and girls on the left. Walking into the restored building, you’re instantly greeted by a beautiful black fireplace and straight rows of desks. If you look closely you’ll notice they’re arranged from smallest to biggest across the room.

From the first day they opened, Buxton’s three schools set and maintained high standards. They were fully-integrated with a very advanced curriculum for grades 1 to 10. Adult education was also encouraged on the settlement, hence the oil lamps surrounding the room that were necessary for evening courses. At full capacity 100 students squeezed in, which is wild to think about when you’re standing there. From one teacher to another, I tip my hat to the school’s former educators.

Both students and staff adhered to strict rules. Several of them made me laugh, since having taught in today’s public education system I know that neither the children nor the adults would survive. Children could only speak when spoken to and if caught squirming in their seats, would have to stand on their tippy-toes with their nose on the chalkboard. Female teachers were forbidden from “loitering” around the ice cream parlour – a rule I most certainly would have broken – and would need to quit once married or with children. The original Buxton desks have ornate wrought iron details and engravings that you can bet were not from past students, since the strap was also a popular form of punishment in those days.

Other Historic Buildings

Within walking distance there are several more historic buildings to be aware of. There’s St. Andrews Church that was built in 1858, the restored Railroad Station from 1875, and the Baptist/Methodist/Presbyterian cemeteries with gravestones dating back to the mid-1800s.

Names of Note: The Shadd Family

Abraham Doras Shadd

Abraham Doras Shadd was a father of thirteen, a respected shoemaker, the first Afro-Canadian to hold office as the Counselor of Raleigh, a free Black man, and an ardent abolitionist. Son of Jeremiah Shadd and Amelia Siscoe, A.D. Shadd was born in Wilmington, Delaware on March 2, 1801. In his 20s he joined the Underground Railroad as a “conductor” at his homes, first in Wilmington, Delaware and then in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was also a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and elected the President of the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Colour in 1833. Clearly, A.D. Shadd was a man with strong convictions and follow-through.

In the 1850s, Abraham moved his large family to Canada, settling in North Buxton. Imagine the welcome he would have received, becoming a part of the community of the same people he had helped to free while in the US! In 1882 at 79 years of age he passed away in Kent County, Ontario. A.D. Shadd’s incredible legacy continues today through the descendants of Black slaves he helped secure freedom for, as well as through his equally impressive children. The road that the museum and railway station lie on is named “A.D. Shadd Road” in his memory.

Mary Ann Shadd

Mary Ann Shadd is perhaps the best known of A.D. Shadd’s 13 children, though it should be noted that his son Isaac Doras Shadd was a member of the Mississippi Legislature from 1871-74, Abraham W. Shadd graduated from Howard Law School, and his daughter Emeline Shadd was a professor at the prestigious Howard University.

Mary Ann was a force of a woman and someone you’d brim with pride to call family. The eldest of Abraham and Harriet’s children, Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary was born free in October 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware, a slave state. She came from a family of women trailblazers, including her grandmother, Amelia Cisco, who ran a popular integrated tea parlour for free Blacks and whites at the beginning of the 1800s. After Mary Ann’s Quaker education was complete, she became a teacher and taught in several different locations. Eventually she moved to Canada West and became a prominent local activist and the first Black female publisher and editor in North America. Her publication, The Provincial Freeman, ran from 1853 until 1859 and the manual press you see below is hers.

Mary Ann Shadd's Original Printing Press in Buxton

If you’ve been to Toronto recently, or subscribe to any street art feeds on social media, it is possible that you’ve seen the stunning mural below. A tour guide I met in Toronto’s Graffiti Alley posted their admiration for a new mural they stumbled across on Mackenzie House, William Lyon Mackenzie’s former home, shortly before I visited North Buxton. The mural had just been finished and there wasn’t any information nearby about it. Fast forward to my time in Buxton where I was chatting with a woman named Halcyon (you’ll hear more about her below), and she opens her phone to show me a brand new mural in Toronto of her relative – Mary Shadd! Synchronicity – it’s a thing, I tell ya!!!

The tributes today to Mary Ann are numerous. Last year in 2020, Google made a Friday doodle honouring her 197th birthday and for her upcoming 200th birthday there are all sorts of celebrations in the works, including essay contests, history conferences, photography and art exhibits, and school-based learning in Windsor-Essex where she once lived and taught. There’s also a bronze bust of her in the BME Freedom Park in Chatham and a statue at the University of Windsor was set to be unveiled in October this year. If you’re interested in learning more about her, there’s a ton of information available online and at the museum.

Dolores Shadd

There’s something amazing about Shadd women. Dolores Shadd was certainly no exception. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan in the 1920s, the self-proclaimed “city girl” later moved to Buxton and made waves in agricultural circles around the world. Before her farming career however, this multi-talented strong-willed woman went to Wayne State University to become a teacher. While studying, she coached not one, but 5 basketball teams! In fact, Dolores coached several sports, including baseball, soccer, volleyball, and basketball, and was even an umpire for the Buxton men’s team. From one female to another, I refereed competitive basketball in university and found that tough. I can only imagine the crowds at a men’s baseball game. Her advocacy work started with sports, standing against racism, crushing gender stereotypes, and uniting others in community.

While in Buxton, Dolores’ belief in and passion for farming and food sustainability developed and grew as she became involved with the Associated Country Women of the World, a female farming organization. She served in different capacities with the Ontario Farmers’ Union and the National Farmers’ Union to try to improve agricultural practices, to protect farmers, and to increase food accessibility. One of her many awards and accomplishments included being inducted into the Kent Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1990. She was also a part of a short documentary about rural and urban Black communities between the 1920s and 1950s, called Older, Stronger, Wiser.

Dolores passed away at the age of 87 in 2013. As if this woman’s story and legacy couldn’t be any more amazing, shortly after I visited Buxton and shared what I had learned on Instagram, a close friend in Kitchener mentioned that they coach with a man named Kenen Shadd and had shared my social media story with them. It turns out Dolores is Kenen’s grandmother. It gave me goosebumps to think how incredibly close that past-present “6”-degrees of separation connection is!

Buxton Today

Buxton’s history makes it special, but so do its present day inhabitants. The village is one of very few remaining Black Canadian settlements from the pre-Civil War time period that is still inhabited by some of the original settlers’ descendants.

A.D. Shadd Road in North Buxton, Ontario

Around 100 residents, who are more than likely descendants of the original Black refugees that built the successful settlement, call Buxton home today. I had the good fortune to meet a few of them. While photographing an abandoned building with a pretty purple base and chipping murals on opposite walls, 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 abandoned 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 other relatives still live close by.

After I finished taking photos I walked over to chat with them and asked if I could take their portrait. Halcyon, a descendant of Buxton settlers and one of the friendly strangers, responded “heck no!”, offering instead to introduce me to her Uncle Gary Shadd, the son of the purple building’s owners. With a little coaxing from Halcyon and her offering to be in the photo with him, Gary graciously agreed. Needless to say, I was thrilled! To bring the day’s events full circle, check out Halcyon’s t-shirt in the photo. Remember the man on the tractor? He was the first of the friendly neighbours to say hello when I was photographing the building…but it wasn’t a Straight Outta Compton sweatshirt he had been wearing! I’m still kicking myself I didn’t snap a photo quickly enough when we drove into town.

Halcyon and Uncle Gary Shadd in Buxton Ontario Canada

Another important building to note in town is the old railway station. With a few changes in ownership, the North Buxton Railway Station has moved throughout the neighbourhood and been used for different purposes. Originally it sat on the north side of the Canada Southern railroad tracks. Halcyon’s grandma (Gary’s mom) bought the Railway station building in the 1950s and shimmed it about 500 meters over to the south side of the tracks where it was used as a storage facility for local agriculture. In 1994 she sold it to a man named Brad who owns Bradonna Woodworking. The building was moved to the east of the woodworking shop, to where it is today. In 2015 the North Buxton Railway Station was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

A few other important things to note about the station and the railroad is that local men built the rail tracks and then maintained employment at the station in maintenance roles and as porters. The station also shifted the physical centre of the settlement, which was originally in South Buxton. With the traffic and commerce the railway brought, a hotel, lumber mills, and other industries sprung up in Buxton. A fun fact for the historians, architects, and designers in the crowd is that the rural railway station still has many original features, including details such as the wainscoting, doors, trim, ceiling, panelled walls, interior room layout, and the board and batten covering the exterior.

Bradonna old train station in North Buxton

Annual Buxton Homecoming Weekend

A nearly century-old tradition in North Buxton takes place each Labour Day weekend. Since 1924, generations of Buxtonians have reunited with friends, family, and neighbours for Homecoming. The only thing that’s ever halted this celebratory occasion, is the current pandemic over the last two years. In 2020 and 2021 celebrations went virtual to keep everyone safe and to be able to still include those south of the border since the land crossing has been closed. (The Canada-U.S. land border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020. Canada opened its border to U.S. land travellers in early August 2021. The US opened its land borders to fully vaccinated travellers on November 8th, 2021.)

The first Homecoming was a 1-day event started by the Sunshine Club of the British Methodist Episcopal Church and held in the pasture fields of Reginald and Minnie Robbins. The goal was to bring everyone together who dispersed throughout North America. Today, Homecoming is an all ages event with 4 days packed full of food, family, sports, history, church, games, and exhibits. Fridays are typically for the history and genealogy conference. On Saturday the famed Family Feud Baseball Tournament takes place, along with the Buxton’s Next Generation group’s Party in the Park. On Sunday there’s church, historic re-enactments with actors in 1850s and 1860s period costumes, as well as other events. Mondays are when the parade, classic car show, championship baseball game, children’s activities, and other exhibits happen.

Homecoming is so well-loved that in 2005 around 5,000 people attended – that’s 50x today’s population!

Buxton Ontario’s Homecoming is a true celebration of heritage, strength, and dedication. In 2020 one of the virtual history conference speakers was Gayle George, an American writer and publisher, and a descendant of John and Arabella Weems. She shared her family’s story with the short film, Railroad Ties, which debuted in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival about Underground Railroad survivors. I highly suggest watching it. It gets you right in the chest with all the feels, and does an excellent job illustrating how connected we all are.

Another notable Homecoming event was the 2019 Guinness World Record attempt for the Longest Soul Train Line. At first the organizers weren’t sure it would be a success since only 23 people pre-registered, but everyone rallied and 434 people hopped on board. Unfortunately there was an issue with the record keeper so it’s unsure whether they will receive the bragging rights.

Fun Facts

  • Buxton was featured on CBC’s Still Standing with comedian Johnny Harris. Watch the episode here.

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.

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 staff also offers off-site visits with staff dressed in periodic outfits, bringing 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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