by Laura Massey
The North Buxton Homecoming ran this past holiday weekend from Friday September 02-Monday September 05. A fitting start to one of Chatham Kent's only four day events was the 8th annual "US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference" staged in the North Buxton Community Church.
Five speakers, including local Dresden author and historian, Marie Carter (Author of Stepping Back in Time: The Trillium Trail in Dresden) journeyed to Buxton from points across North America. Despite skyrocketing gas prices on both sides of the border and a strong resistance in some families to talk about the past, close to 100 registered guests, speakers, staff and volunteers got together to network, share and connect with fellow genealogists and people with a passion for the past. As Glenette Tilley Turner (Author of The Underground Railroad in Illinois) stated in her presentation, "Today I offer you but a snapshot or glimpse of the depth of the history available."
Speaking with conference organizer, host and descendent, Bryan Prince, I learned that several years ago, he and past museum curator, Alice Newby felt there was a need for the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum to share the many freedom seekers stories, names and physical locations but couldn't decide when. While discussing this, a researcher from Georgia joined in telling them that it had to be held Labour Day weekend. And so it was. Sharri Rolland Phillips, a Parker/Burns descendant from Lapeer, Michigan has been attending this holiday weekend Homecoming for twenty years. She is familiar with the stories, has strong links to the community and "considers this area and the strong people who first came here more her culture - not foreign - homey." It is estimated that over 5,000 people attended this year's community Homecoming.
Another popular weekend event is the "Family Feud" baseball tournament. Played all day Saturday with the championship games played Monday, it is a co-ed, family sport. This year ten families played. Each team member had to be a family member and equally split with five male and five female in order to qualify. "You have a family tree - there could be a sixteen year old niece playing with a 65 year old great uncle, all wearing the same colour team t-shirt - truly a family feud," exclaimed Bryan Prince. Handsor family team coordinator, Randy Handsor had 17 family members present to play for his team and many more to cheer them on. Wearing maroon jerseys their family has played in the tournament since 1998.
Food plays an important role in the weekend. I spoke with one woman, an educator from St.Clair College in Windsor, who said she tries to attend each year. One year she contemplated not coming as she wasn't feeling well but made the trek because she especially wanted one of the delicious rib dinners. Ham/beef dinners were served at the church hall Sunday while Chicken/Rib meals were served Monday for the price of $13.00 each. Every year they sell out as their popularity increases.
Sunday evening the "Historical Re-enactment" took place. Costumed actors took part in seven historically accurate vignettes depicting life in Buxton in the 1850's and 1860's. At this time Buxton, situated in Canada West, was one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad, a haven for freedom seekers in flight from the present day United States of America, a self sufficient community and home to more than 2,000 people.Actor Spencer Alexander gave a convincing performance as Frederick Douglas delivering a speech he made in 1854. What people don't know is that Spencer is himself a 6th generation descendant. "My first ancestor to come to this site was George Hatter. He had escaped from Virginia in 1837, arriving here when he was just 19," explained Spencer.
Today, Buxton is one of the few African Canadian Settlements remaining from the pre Civil War era and inhabited mostly by descendents of the original settlers. Their museum is a National Historic Site and this Buxton community/heritage district has been officially designated the first Canadian partner in the "National Parks Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom" American organization.