It may come as something of a surprise that Iowa, of all states, has a fairly rich Negro league history. The Algona Brownies were an important professional team in the early 1900s. In 1912 the original All-Nations Club was founded in Des Moines. The Chicago Union Giants barnstormed across Iowa for decades, and in 1917 an offshoot of that team, Gilkerson’s Union Giants, got its start as the Lost Island Giants. And then there were the Buxton Wonders.
Buxton was a coal-mining town that sprang up in Monroe County around mines owned by the Consolidation Coal Company—the largest coal mines west of the Mississippi at that time. It was a company town, named after the company president, Ben Buxton, and populated by a racially diverse group of miners largely drawn from the coal country of Virginia and West Virginia, but also including Swedish and Australian immigrants. African Americans formed the single biggest ethnic group, including a large number of miners but also lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors, and other professionals.
Buxton, Iowa, in the early 1900s. (Wayne I. Anderson, Iowa’s Geological Past: Three Billion Years of Change, p. 255.)
The Buxton Wonders were founded around 1901, and quickly became one of the town’s main attractions. Like the town itself, the Wonders peaked around 1909 and 1910, in the former year playing a number of games against the best black teams in the Midwest, including the Leland Giants, St. Paul Gophers, and Kansas City (Kansas) Giants. They managed to win only two games against these clubs while losing six and tying one. But one of their wins, as well as the tie, came against the mighty Leland Giants (unfortunately box scores haven’t been recovered yet). Although Buxton had several newspapers, apparently nothing from 1909 survives (or has been usefully archived yet).
A number of 1909 Wonders players—Lefty Pangburn, Mule Armstrong, Walter Taylor, Dee Williams—moved on to other major teams, Taylor switching to Kansas City after the Wonders travelled there in June, Williams following him in September. The Wonders’ captain was George Neal, who also played for the Chicago Giants and the Leland Giants.
Here’s a fascinating article about the Buxton Wonders from the Le Mars, Iowa, paper in 1977, featuring interviews with former Buxton residents:
(Le Mars Daily Sentinel, November 10, 1977, p. 5)
The Wonders continued, even as the black proportion of Buxton’s population began to decline, and a few white players joined the team. But they never recovered the prominence they’d attained in 1909. By the early 1920s coal production in Iowa began to decline, and the mines were exhausted or shut down. George Neal had long since returned to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where he sometimes managed the Union Giants.
(Daily Illinois State Register, April 4, 1922, p. 10.)
In 1923 Buxton’s post office was closed, and within a few years nobody was left in Buxton at all. In the 1980s a major archeological study of the town was conducted, and much work was done to interview former inhabitants and to reconstruct the town’s history, including the story of the Buxton Wonders. Now Buxton itself is just a ghost town, little more than some sparse ruins and an historical marker.
For more on Buxton, see: