North Buxton Homecoming 2021: A Festival of Freedom

North Buxton School

Written by Tom Slager

August 24, 2021

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Located an hour east of Detroit in the agricultural heartland of Southwestern Ontario, the small town of North Buxton has a big history. For nearly a century, it has hosted the North Buxton Homecoming. This is an annual celebration of the community’s history and the idea of community as family.

On Homecoming weekend this quiet town rumbles with the sounds of people from all across North America. The event is held on Labour Day weekend and draws people back to their ancestral home for four days of family, fun and remembering. After a virtual celebration last year due to pandemic restrictions, The 98th North Buxton Homecoming in 2021 is going to be back live and in person.

Michelle Robbins is a product of that unique marriage of history and community. When talking to her it doesn’t take long to realize that North Buxton is woven through her very soul. Not only did She grow up there, but like many with Buxton roots, she can also trace her family tree back to the beginnings of the settlement. She has family that continues to live and work on the land within the community, and she is also part of a core group of committee members that plan and pull off the massive annual Homecoming gathering.

North Buxton Homecoming Michelle

Michelle Robbins

It all starts with the founding of the town, and Michelle is proud of her community’s history. “North Buxton,” she says, “was founded – well, the Elgin settlement, which is what it was previously called, was founded in 1835 by Rev. William King. He started the settlement and brought the 15 enslaved people he had inherited. He was able to give them their freedom. Then they welcomed more freedom seekers to Buxton, to the Elgin settlement, through the Underground Railroad and other freedom avenues. Everyone that came to the settlement had their freedom. “

Rev. King had set up a system not just for freemen and those fleeing slavery to live, but for them to thrive. King, who was white, firmly believed that the colour of one’s skin had nothing to do with a person’s capabilities. With the help and backing of the English Presbyterian Church, he secured a large tract of land that extended north from the Lake Erie shoreline through eight miles of forest and wetland. This land became the Elgin Settlement.

As people arrived, they were sold plots of land to develop into their own farmsteads. Since many did not have much money, they were sold on loan, with the expectation that the new homesteader would clear the forest and convert the land into agricultural use. As their farms and income grew, they were then expected to pay back their loans. King’s settlement proved that African-Americans were just as capable of becoming successful business owners as anyone.

Rev. King also started a school, a one-room schoolhouse. He believed that all children, regardless of race, should be provided with a good and equal education. In this endeavour, he was once again proven right. Eventually, the public schools that existed around the area closed down, as their students – often white students – were sent to attend King’s school.

The Elgin Settlement slowly declined after the U.S. Civil War as people moved back home to bring their wealth and knowledge back to their families who had remained in the United States. Over time, two towns developed. South Buxton, which is centred on the old Elgin Settlement town square, and North Buxton which grew in association with a second school and railroad station. The history of this area is remarkable as it sits at the end of “The Underground Railroad.” This is where people, fleeing slavery, came and made their homes. Today North Buxton hosts the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum to honour its story.

North Buxton Museum Cabin Kitchen

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum Cabin Kitchen

The Museum does more than just preserve history. It is a resource that helps bring family members who have been separated from the community by time and distance back “home.” There is a map, which, Michelle says, “Shows the original settlement and where farms were.   There are so many ways to track.  Either lands, homesteads, families, property, all kinds of things that you are able to find in the museum.  A lot of people will now email and call and try to find and track down their family.  Social media has been a big help with that and trying to connect people together.  You just type in someone’s name and find your cousins that you don’t know or are connected to when there are lots of family groups.  People are able to track and find their family land, or family property.”

Reconnecting to their heritage finds its ultimate expression in North Buxton in early September with Homecoming.  While the theme changes each year, the central idea is always that if you have any ties at all to North Buxton, they want you to come back home for a visit, and if you don’t, it’s time to come out there and make some.  While the event’s history is rooted in family ties, it’s a great time for anyone to experience the town and its attractions.

Michelle says that “What started as a celebration under a pear tree in the middle of a field and was just a family reunion and bbq has grown into a four-day celebration.  It’s amazing to see the amount of people that come, local and from a distance.  People come from the states, other parts of Ontario, and Canada just to come back “home” and to celebrate with us.  Every year I think I meet a new cousin that I didn’t know.  I think everybody that comes can say that too.  They have no idea who half of the people are, but they know that they are related! 

“It’s amazing to see the big gathering, but then you see those families that continue their traditions every year by camping out or having BBQs, stuff like that. You have people that will come and gather in their homestead where their family lived or where they have relatives that are still living in the area.  You’ll see them have their own individual family BBQs and gatherings in their yards. It’s a weekend for people to get to know each other again, to be welcomed home.”

It’s a weekend filled with tours of the historic sites, and other events.  Live music and good food with a festival atmosphere are constants over the years as is the annual parade down the main street. There is also usually a softball tournament to go with other activities that have included craft shows, markets, fireworks, car shows, kid’s activities, and an organized bike ride.  This year the celebration will include a Black History and Genealogy Conference for those who want to dig deeper into the past.  The party tends to go well into the night most of the time with each day picking up again mid-morning. The exception is Sunday morning, which is kept quieter in respect to those who attend the town’s two historic churches.

North Buxton Homecoming 2016Car Show

2016 Car Show

“We are going into our 98th year,” Michelle notes. “Last year our homecoming was titled “Generations.” There was one person that was there for the very first homecoming. We have plenty of people in our family that have surpassed their 90s and into their 100s. It’s amazing to see it come full circle. “

For Michelle, the idea of being bound together, by both extended family and history, is a concept that runs very deep. “I think a big part of it is just knowing what our ancestors fought for to come here,” she says. “We want to ensure that we carry on their traditions. I think that is so important.

Of the younger people she says, “We want to ensure that all of our traditions are instilled in them and continue to be.” Last year was done remotely, with public activities and gatherings happening online. Not even a global pandemic, though, can break the connection that winds through Michelle and the people of North Buxton. “ We’re bonded by the people that brought us here and the generations that were here before us and that will continue after us. “

Pear Tree

The North Buxton Pear Tree

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