On the Back of the Bus: The Pine Street School Bus Restoration and the History of Student Transportation
Nothing typifies the transition from Summer to Fall like seeing children waiting to be taken to school in the wee hours of the morning. One such child was Andre Roussimoff, who you might recognize better by his stage name Andre the Giant. Andre grew up in a part of France so rural that even by the mid-1950s only a few people in the area had access to motorized transportation. One of these folks was renowned Irish playwright and poet Samuel Beckett who routinely drove Andre and his siblings to and from school. The odd pair had quite a bit in common, especially a deep appreciation for the game of cricket, and formed one of history’s most unlikely of friendships. For those of us who were not taken to class by a world-class writer, we relied on the trusty yellow bus to shepherd us safely to and from school.
In the United States and Canada, this tradition can be traced back to the single-room schoolhouses that served many rural communities in the middle of the 19th Century. Most of the students lived far beyond reasonable walking distance, so rugged farm wagons were repurposed and retrofitted to safely, if not comfortably, ferry children back and forth. 1892 saw the first purpose-built ‘School Car’ by the Indiana-based manufacturer Wayne Works. Though still horse-drawn, the school car provided bench seating and a roof, as well as a rear door for entering and exiting so as not to spook the horses.
It would come as no surprise then that motorized forms of student transportation would follow in a similar fashion. In the early 1900s, retrofitted motorized trucks began to replace the wagons, though they followed roughly the same design, including the rear door and minimal protection from the elements. 1915 saw the debut of the first purpose-built motorized school bus by International Harvester, which would later become Navistar and still produces bus chassis to this day. By 1919, the operation of school buses was funded in each of the 48 States. The first steel-framed school bus introduced in 1927 as an alternate body for the Ford Model-T. School bus design developed rapidly from then until a conference in 1939 established national safety regulations leading to the production of coaches that are a close approximation of what we see today.
Eriks Garsvo, Director of the Owyhee County Museum, is the current owner of a 1937 school bus that served Twin Falls County for years until its eventual decommission. It is an International D-30 truck with a Green Diamond Flat Head six-cylinder motor and a steel frame made by Hicks Bus Body Co. of Lebanon, Indiana. At the time, school districts would purchase a truck, in this case the D-30, and then order the chassis model from one of several fabrication companies. The fabricator would cut the back of the cab off the truck, then bolt and weld the selected chassis into place, leaving the dashboard intact.
The era of this particular bus is particularly interesting as it shows clear improvements on the original steel-frame bus introduced a decade earlier, but it was made before the national standards were implemented. The Pine Street Bus are safety glass windows, while previous models were usually open on the sides or fitted with a rudimentary tarpaulin system for inclement weather. It also used a front curbside door for entry/exit, while most previous models still used the rear door for loading passengers despite the conspicuous lack of horses to frighten. Hicks designs incorporated forward-facing bench seats, which were a noted safety and comfort upgrade over the perimeter seating of previous models. Keen observers may notice the shade of paint to be a bit darker than to what we are accustomed. “National School Bus Glossy Yellow” was one of the standards introduced in 1939, as were the addition of flip-out stop signs.
The International School Bus was found by Meridian Historical Foundation (MHF) member Doug Rutan at the Jerome, Idaho bus scrap yard in 1998. On behalf of MHF, Rutan acquired the bus and oversaw its restoration, which was completed in 2001 as part of Meridian’s Centennial Celebration and to coincide with the restoration of The Pine Street School House. MHF and the school districts of West Ada, Boise, and Kuna volunteered their time to the effort which was supported by grants from the Idaho Heritage Trust, MHF, and Boise School District. The bus was rebuilt, rust removed, holes welded shut, the body repainted, and the interior completely redone. The Kuna chapter of Future Farmers of America designed and fabricated 12 new seats based on the original designs, and a team of students from the Dehryl A. Dennis Professional-Technical Center and Boise State University performed the bulk of the bodywork.
Eriks took over responsibility for the bus in 2017 and sees to the myriad of maintenance and restoration projects commensurate with keeping a nearly 100-year-old vehicle in working order. Luckily, Eriks is not only an avid historian and advocate for historic preservation, he also happens to be a passionate restorer of vintage automobiles, including a 1941 Plymouth that is currently vying for his attention. Most recently Eriks had the bus’s carburetor redone. In a testament to the popularity and durability of International trucks, Eriks’ mechanic was able to source authentic replacement parts. Next on the upkeep agenda is welding and reconstruction of the fenders, and a lot of knocking on wood that recent work to the generator and electrical systems continues to hold true.
Since taking possession, Eriks has shown the bus in car shows, driven it in parades, and recently had it displayed at the Meridian Bus Depot next to a brand-new model for side-by-side comparison. Now back with him, Eriks takes great pride in mastering the bus’s double clutch and lack of powered steering, noting it requires equal amounts of finesses and brute strength to safely coax the bus up to its maximum speed of 35 MPH. The bus can be found at local car shows and cruising downtown Boise. In the past, Eriks has used the bus for a driving tour of Boise’s historic Interurban Trolley Line, following most of the trolley’s former path in downtown and providing keen insights into the history of Boise and rail transportation in general.
The bus comfortably seats ten adults or up to twenty children, and Eriks would be more than happy to share the bus and his expertise with you for an upcoming event, historical tour, or school demonstration. For more information, please reach out through the Owyhee County Historical Museum. Many thanks to Eriks for his outstanding work on this and many other heritage preservation projects, as well as his time and input on this article.
Photos are used with permission from Eriks Garsvo and the Owyhee County Hustorical Museum.
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