I recently discovered on a farm off NC 49 near Farmer School, what is probably Randolph County’s oldest surviving school bus. The bus and its history will be the subject of a future post (or several), as the Randolph Heritage Conservancy seeks to restore it as a historic parade vehicle and exhibit. Here’s a couple of photos of the bus body, built of welded steel angle iron and with oak framing and flooring and sheet metal sides. It is in surprisingly good shape for more than 75 years outside. The International truck chassis which may match it is located on another nearby farm.
To start a restoration of any kind of vehicle, we need to know as much as possible about it. So here are some preliminary research notes.
Soon after the end of World War 1, one of the first public buses in the state began running between Greensboro and Asheboro. So it should come as no surprise that Randolph County was also a pioneer in busing rural children to school.
H.G. Jones, NC Illustrated, p.383, photo 9-107. “P.B. Comer’s red and black vehicle– a specially-made body on an International truck chassis– made two round trips per day between Greensboro and Asheboro. His intercity franchise may have been the first issued in the state.” (photo from theState magazine, March 1976).
[While we're on the subject of intercity buses, here is a 1931 photo of a Greensboro-Fayetteville Line bus. the route began in Fayetteville and drove daily through Asheboro to Greensboro. The man posing in the photo is Henry C. Greene, who drove the bus more than 18 years. From Timepieces: Randolph County, A Pictorial Review (Asheboro: The Courier-Tribune, 1996), p. 53.]
Francine Holt Swaim, in her book Liberty High School, 1885-1968 (Asheboro: Hunsucker Printing, 1975) says that school busing began in Randolph County in 1920, when the county school board decided to close the one-room school in Julian and truck its 30 pupils to Liberty. The county purchased the truck from one vendor and the bus body from another, and when the truck arrived early the students first rode on the bare truck bed, on benches in the open air. Fourteen-year-old J. Van Henderson was the first bus driver, and passed the job along to his brothers Charles, John and Ed, in turn. Van Henderson was also responsible for bus maintenance, which involved hand cranking the motor to start it up, draining the radiator on cold nights
to keep the water from freezing, and hanging a lantern on the front as needed to light the way home in the dark. While another bus also served Trinity School that year, the bus to Liberty made the first trip and thus can be considered the first bus in the county, says Mrs. Swaim. (id., p.37)
Photo: J. Van Henderson (driver, 1920-24), with the first bus. All of the exterior parts are obviously wooden, whereas the sides of the Farmer bus are sheet metal. This indicates a later date, as the first all-steel school bus bodies were built in 1927 by both Wayne Works of Richmond, Indiana, and the Blue Bird Body Company of Fort Valley, Georgia. (See wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_bus).
Photo: Julian students, 1925. (L-R, Gladys Pickett, Mae York, Margie Pickett, Elizabeth Hanner, Mabel York, Pauline Whitaker).
The vehicle in those two photos of Randolph County’s first bus are almost identical to an undated and unidentified photo from Mead County, Colorado (lib.colostate.edu/research/agbib/educrt.html ).
The Wisconsin Historical Society site has the International Harvester Photo Archive online, and one similar photo is identified as a 1922 International Harvester Model S truck with Wayne Works school bus body.
It is not yet known where Randolph County purchased its first buses. The well-known Thomas Company of High Point did not transition from street car to bus manufacturing until 1936. Perhaps the first school bus manufacturer in the state was the Jerome Bolick Sons Company of Conover, in Catawba County. Jerome Bolick (1858-1938), started a buggy manufacturing operation around 1883, which eventually grew to include 10 buildings and five of his seven sons. The Bolicks gradually moved from buggies to the manufacture of custom trucks and buses, and produced their first school bus in 1929 for a school in Crossnore. (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nccconov/Bolickbuggy.htm)
In 1932 the Bolick company began manufacturing buses for sale to independent county school systems. These were part-wood and part-steel frames known as “composite” school buses, and were sold in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia , Alabama and Florida until 1938, when the first all-steel bus was manufactured by the company. In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, the State of North Carolina took over the funding of the school systems as well as of the student transportation system. In 1937 the Bolicks sold 250 composite buses to the state. (http://www.catawbavalleymedical.org/walkVirtualTour.html ).
The Jerome Bolick Sons Company bus bodies shown here appear to be the “composite” bodies made from 1932 to 1937. The chassises all exhibit the distinctive radiator grill featured on 1934-36 vintage Dodge trucks. The Rutherford County body in the background has six side windows plus the driver’s window, and that appears to be the size of all the bare Dodge chassises in the foreground. (Our Randolph County bus has just five side windows, and the driver’s cab is missing. It isn’t yet clear if this indicates an early date of manufacture or a choice for a smaller size body.)
In 1953 the Bolick company switched to making truck bodies, and closed in 1978. The main Bolick bus factory building in the background is still standing in Conover. [Photo from H.G. Jones, North Carolina Illustrated, 1524-1984. (Chapel Hill: The UNC Press, 1983) (p. 382, photo 9-104, credited to The Charlotte Observer.]