Andrew Turnbull presents

The History of School Transportation in Mercer County, WV

1936-63 - 1963-74 - 1974-84 - 1984-91 - 1991-97 - 1997-2003


Beginnings

WV SRC circa-1935 map

A mid-1930s State Road Commission map of western Mercer County provides a glimpse at how many small, rural schools were still in existence at the time. Also note the letters "S.B." on the map, indicating school bus routes.

In the early 20th century, the rural hinterlands of Mercer County, West Virginia were peppered with far many more schools than would ever seem conceivable today...with the caveat that most of these were archaic one-room schoolhouses. Few families lived more than a few miles away from a school, making walking to school a reasonable prospect for most rural students.

Princeton-Bluefield
        interurban trolley

Princeton-Bluefield interurban trolley at Glenwood Park, early 20th century [postcard].

Within the cities of Princeton and Bluefield, students had the option of making use of public streetcar transportation. Streetcars were also accessible to students living in the Glenwood and Ceres areas, where interurban service existed along what is now signed as the Old Princeton-Bluefield Road.

Rural school consolidation, in combination with the unfortunate and undeserved decline of the county's rail transit system in the 1930s, made buses increasingly necessary. School buses or "kid hacks" had existed in various forms since the late 19th century, when they were drawn by horses. Early school buses were also invariably privately-owned, and the Mercer County Board of Education initially contracted with the Consolidated Bus Company and a number of other private school bus operators for their services. Clearly, however, public school transportation was a public responsibility...and it deserved a public response.

In May of 1936, the Mercer County school board purchased seventeen buses from the Barrow-Stowers Company, a GMC dealership in Bluefield. Bus bodies were furnished by the Wayne Works of Richmond, Indiana. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph explained the rationale for the county's school bus system on 3 April of that year: "By owning and operating its own busses (sic) the board hopes to improve the bus schedules, and to shorten the school days of the rural children who are transported to school by getting them away from home later in the morning and home quicker after schools close in the afternoon."

Tasked with supervising and administrating the new system was former superintendent G. J. Wood, a veteran of the county school board. Plans for operating the buses were laid down the following summer, and the county's new school bus fleet went into service at the start of the 1936-37 school year. Students living on the Princeton-Bluefield interurban trolley line were initially excluded from the bus routes; however, in 1938 the bus service was expanded to encompass them as well. Trolley service came to an end in Mercer County less than a decade later, leaving school and transit buses (and the rare, lingering passenger train) as the only transportation modes available.

school bus

An early school bus is clearly visible at the curb in this detail of a widely-circulated 1930s postcard of Mercer School in Princeton, West Virginia. Quite likely, this is a representation of one of Mercer County's inaugural buses from 1936.

school bus

Two of Mercer County's original 1936 school buses, seen on their eve of retirement in 1955 after 19 years of heavy use. The fleet numbers #52 and #55 are barely visible on the entrance doors.

Given the early period of manufacture for these vehicles, it's striking how so many of the characteristics of the template of modern school buses are already in place...including chrome yellow colouring, clearance markers (not required by federal dictate until 1968), and a "SCHOOL BUS" sign flanked by flashing lights. Contrasting black fenders were a stylistic indulgence that would persist on West Virginia school bus livery until the 1970s. [Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 1955-09-04]


Early Years (1936-46)

Although Mercer County's original fleet of 17 buses made up the backbone of its fleet in the late 1930s and 1940s, increased school transportation demands and the continuous wear and tear on vehicles meant that the county couldn't rest on its laurels: It continued to purchase new school buses. Interestingly, this continued through World War II: Local newspapers from 1944 mention "two 54 passenger buses have been added to the fleet of school buses already part of the school system." Corroborating this is a 1959 auction ad listing a 1944 Ford bus for sale. But how were these buses produced and procured, with civilian vehicle production suspended during the war?

New technological developments from school bus manufacturers in this era had a compound effect. Wood bodies gave way to much stronger all-steel bodies, which in turn yielded larger bodies with higher capacities. In 1941, Mercer County purchased its first 54-passenger school buses. Anything bigger than that, however, was still a few years from local fruition.

school bus

An early Mercer County school bus of unknown year and fleet number (though possibly one of the board's inaugural 1936 Wayne/GMCs), photographed in Princeton in 1948. Small, low-capacity school buses such as these were retained in the fleet for many years out of necessity because they were more nimble than larger buses on treacherous, winding mountain roads. [BDT 1948-02-26]

school bus school bus

#75, a 42-passenger 1938 Wayne/GMC model bearing a Wayne body identical to that of the county's inaugural 1936 buses. This bus featured prominently in these promotional stills from Life's Too Short!, a single-reel road safety film produced by students of Oakvale High School in conjunction with the Ohio State University in 1940. This film has likely been lost, as there are no references to its existence in any known post-1940s publication. [BDT 1940-05-26]

school bus

A 1939 or 1940 model Mercer County school bus with a Wayne body and GMC chassis. The fleet number has been obscured, but the last digit is "7"...implying that this was either #77, #87, or #97 in the fleet. Note that this bus has sashless windows that drop down directly into the body, similar to the windows on a passenger car. The flashing lights also have an incongruous "tacked-on" appearance, and it's possible that the rear flashers were retrofitted to the body between 1949 and 1953. [Matoaka High School yearbook, 1953]

school bus

#95, a Wayne bus of unknown manufacture year with an appearance similar to the last. No rear flashers are visible, but the bus does bears the words "STOP—STATE LAW" that were added to all school buses statewide following the passage of a 1949 West Virginia law.

Note that the bus bears a regular West Virginia passenger-vehicle licence plate: Specially-designated licence plates for county-owned vehicles do not appear to have been introduced until the 1950s at earliest. Randy Robinette, Mercer County's school transportation director, is visible at left. [Beckley Raleigh Register 1949-08-30]

school bus

This very unusual-looking vehicle appears to be a Wayne-bodied bus with a late-1930s Gemmer forward-control conversion. It is the earliest evidence that has surfaced of a forward-control school bus being used in Mercer County, West Virginia. [Bluefield High School yearbook, 1942]

school bus

This bus body features sashless windows and thick pillars of similar design to the 1939-40 Wayne Matoaka example, but differs slightly in material details and is of unknown manufacture. The fleet number is obscured, but appears to be in the 100 series. Mercer County fleet numbers hit three digits by 1941. [Athens High School yearbook, 1959]


Bus Numbering and Numeric Anomalies

By 1941, the scope of the Mercer County school board's transportation system had grown to encompass 40 drivers and 5,000 riders. Fleet numbering had also taken hold, with the buses then in service being numbered from #50 through #101. Why the county chose 50 as the starting point of its numbering system instead of 1 is unknown.

52 buses seems like a lot for a county of this size to go through in five years...but there were circumstances at play that made such a number plausible. A full third of these consisted of the initial lot of 17 buses acquired in 1936. The county was more populous and more heavily skewed towards the rural in 1941 than it is now, resulting in an exceptionally-large contingent of students needing to be ferried home. School buses of the 1930s and early 1940s were also much smaller than modern equivalents, with many being scarcely bigger than a pickup truck with capacities of 25 passengers or less. Two or more buses may have been required in situations where in later years one would have sufficed.

That said, the county's fleet numbering during the 1940s and early 1950s remains sheathed in a veil of mystery. In 1977, the Board of Education auctioned off a number of older vehicles...including a school bus #48, listed as a 1951 48-passenger International-chassis model. Did the county backfill low fleet numbers below 50, or did the typesetter mistake the capacity figure for a fleet number? I lean towards the latter.

Another numeric anomaly was a bus #128 corroborated by multiple sources in the 1977-78 timeframe. Chronologically, #128 ought to have been a circa-1953 model. Was the number reassigned to a new vehicle through oversight or error, or was Mercer actually using a 25-year-old bus in 1978?

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
50
1936
Wayne GMC
Served Spanishburg.
51
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Matoaka.
52
1936 Wayne GMC 36
Served Princeton.
53
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Bramwell.
54
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Bramwell.
55
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Matoaka.
56
1936 Wayne GMC

57
1936 Wayne GMC

58
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Oakvale.
59
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Princeton.
60
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Athens.
61
1936 Wayne GMC
Served McComas.
62
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Bramwell.
63
1936 Wayne GMC

64
1936 Wayne GMC
Served Oakvale.
65
1936 Wayne GMC

66
1936 Wayne GMC

Presumed to be the last of the county's 17 original buses.
70

Unknown

Served Oakvale.
71

Unknown

Served Bramwell.
72

Unknown

Served Matoaka.
73

Unknown

Served Oakvale.
74

Unknown

Served Bluefield.
75
1938
Wayne GMC
42
Served Spanishburg. Featured in Life's Too Short!
76

Unknown

Served Athens.
82

Unknown

Served Bramwell.
91

Unknown

Served Bramwell.
92

Unknown

Served Bluefield.
93

Unknown

Served Matoaka.
94

Unknown

Served Princeton.
95
Wayne Unknown

Served Spanishburg.
96

Unknown

Served Princeton.
97

Unknown

Served Bluefield.
98

Unknown

Served Princeton.
99

Unknown

Served Bluefield.
100

Unknown

Served Matoaka.
101

Unknown

Served Matoaka. Newest bus in commission in 1941.

Postwar years (1946-63)

Once the dust cleared from World War II, a change of personnel was in the air. G. J. Wood retired from his job as transportation director in June 1946 after more than 30 years of service to Mercer County Schools. Replacing him in his post was Randy S. Robinette, who would administer the county's school bus system for the next twenty-five years.

In 1948, the Board of Education took delivery of its first modern 60-passenger buses, featuring Superior bodies. The district also initiated the practice of keeping a limited number of "spare" buses on hand to account for breakdowns and to transport students to special events. Mercer County retired the last of its original 1936-model buses in 1955, and by decade's end they adopted the practice of purchasing five buses per year in order to continuously renew the fleet every 13 years.

There was another, decidedly less pleasant issue affecting the Board during this timeframe: The ugly undercurrent of racism. Mercer County's schools abided by a policy of segregation by skin colour until the wake of Brown v. Board in 1954. School transportation had also been segregated, as described by Mercer County superintendent Pete Cooke in 1955: "Two school buses now are used exclusively for Negro children, and others haul white pupils on one trip and Negro pupils the next." [BDT 1955-08-28] The county eventually acquised to integration, but troubles continued...most viciously at Matoaka High School, where school bus unloading zones became the scenes of violent confrontations. White administrators also found ways to frustrate the spirit of integration by selectively shuttering historically-black schools, displacing black teachers, and leaving black students without social support...and this didn't end in 1963.

school bus

This new school bus (photographed in Princeton in 1948) is very similar to a modern bus in length and capacity, and has a Superior body bearing the fleet number 109. By this time, flashing lights had begun to appear on the rear of buses as well as the front. Also note the "black belt" containing the district lettering, a livery element that still persists in the neighbouring state of Kentucky to this day. [BDT 1948-02-26]

school bus

Another, similar example of a Mercer County school bus with a Superior body from the late 1940s or very early 1950s; fleet number and chassis unknown. The window pillars appear to be thicker and the "black belt" district lettering is of a different x-width, so it obviously hails from a different production batch. As a matter of trivia, this bus features the same body style as the Partridge Family's bus. [Athens High School yearbook, 1959]

school bus school bus

This round-roofed Wayne/GMC bus is numbered 127, and is most likely a 1952 model. Note the unusual rear lighting configuration with a single oversize brakelight to the right of the emergency door, which may or may not have been a short-lived state requirement. By the year the left-hand picture was taken, West Virginia had introduced specially-designated black-on-white licence plates for county-owned vehicles. [Princeton High School yearbook, 1961 and 1963]

school bus

Frank Price (left) and George Rutledge (right) perform paint and maintenance work on two new Wayne/REO buses on the eve of the 1953-54 school year. One bus quite evidently bears the fleet number 129. Note that the "black belt" for district lettering had been discontinued by this time, and the "STOP—STATE LAW" sign required under the provisions of the 1949 West Virginia law completely replaced the "School Bus" sign on the front roof cap. At the time, the Mercer County Board of Education operated 54 buses covering 129 routes. [BDT 1953-09-06]

school bus

Mercer County's vehicle numbers had reached #153 by the time these buses entered the fleet, readily identifiable as 1955 models thanks to a year-specific grille shared with that year's light Ford pickups. The bodies were manufactured by Blue Bird of Fort Valley, Georgia, and bear ridged "visors" over each side window...an identifying characteristic of Blue Bird bodies to this day.

Other signs of evolution in statewide trends: The roof-mounted flashers have much larger lenses than those on earlier buses, and the roof cap lettering has been changed to read "STOP—SCHOOL BUS" in an attempt to reconcile the requirements of the 1949 state law with effective frontal identification. These buses were purchased as direct replacements for two of the school board's original 1936 models. [BDT 1955-09-04]

school bus

#165, a 60-passenger model. For 1958, the county once again procured bodies from Blue Bird of Georgia, similar in structure to the buses of 1955 but with protruding rectangular buckets around the flashing lights and a redesigned windshield. Blue Bird's iconic roof logo had also made its first appearance by this time. [Princeton High School yearbook, 1959]

school bus

West Virginia's statewide school bus specifications continued to evolve by the dawn of the 1960s. Roof-mounted flashers began to be surrounded by visors similar to those on traffic signals in order to increase the contrast of the signals on sunny days. The roof cap lettering changed to a cumbersome two-line "STATE LAW/STOP—SCHOOL BUS" legend in a shifting and evolving attempt to keep all requirements of state law happy.

This particular bus is a Blue Bird riding a 1960 Chevrolet chassis, and might have borne the fleet number 176. By 1971, these buses were the oldest in the county still being operated. [Princeton High School yearbook, 1961]

school bus

#175, another 1960 Blue Bird of identical design. This particular bus was repainted at some point in its nine-year operational life, and the black rub rails, roof logo, and side nameplate all bear evidence of being painted over. [Bluefield High School yearbook, 1969]

school bus

#188, a 1961 or 1962 Blue Bird conventional model of unknown chassis manufacture. Note the trapezoidal "Blue Bird" nameplate by the door, and the "half-out, half-in" door leaves that were a common configuration until jackknife and outward-opening door configurations began to dominate in the 1970s. Like the last, this bus features plain yellow rub rails with no black highlights. Black rub rails would not reappear on the state's school bus livery until the 1980s. [Bluefield High School yearbook, 1963]

Bus
Year
Body
Chassis
Cap.
Notes
109
1947
Superior
GMC
60

122
1950
Unknown
White

Sold in 1979, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
127
1952?
Wayne
GMC

Served Princeton.
128

Unknown


Numeric anomaly; see above.
129
1953
Wayne?
REO?


134
1953 Wayne? GMC
36
Decommissioned and sold in 1968.
135
1953 Wayne? REO
60
Decommissioned and sold in 1965.
136
1953 Wayne? REO

Sold in 1979, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
137
1953
Wayne? REO

Sold in 1979, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
140
1953
Unknown
International
60
Decommissioned and sold in 1965.
141
1953
Unknown International
60
Decommissioned and sold in 1965.
142
1954 Unknown Ford

Sold in 1979, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
145
1954 Unknown GMC
60
Decommissioned and sold in 1965.
147
1954
Unknown GMC
60
Decommissioned and sold in 1968.
148
1954?
Unknown
Unknown

Served Montcalm.
153
1955
Blue Bird
Ford 30

154
1955
Blue Bird?
Ford 48
Sold in 1977, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
155
1956
Unknown
Ford 60
Served Lashmeet. Decommissioned and sold in 1968.
156
1956
Unknown Ford 60
Decommissioned and sold in 1968.
157
1956
Unknown
Ford?

Served Brushfork.
160
1956?
Unknown
Ford?

Served Oakvale.
161
1957
Unknown Ford 48
Served Spanishburg. Sold in 1977, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
165
1958
Blue Bird
Unknown
60 Served Princeton.
166
1958
Blue Bird
Unknown

Served Spanishburg.
169
1958
Blue Bird
Ford
48
Sold in 1977, most likely decades after it was last used in regular service.
173




Served Bluefield.
174




Served Glenwood.
175
1960
Blue Bird
Unknown

Served Bluefield.
176
1960
Blue Bird
Chevrolet?

Served Princeton.
179




Served Bluewell, Glenwood.
183
1961
Unknown
Ford
48
Served Matoaka. Decommissioned and sold in 1979.
185
1961
Unknown Ford
60
Decommissioned and sold in 1979.
186
1961?
Unknown Ford?

Served Princeton.
187
1962?
Blue Bird?
Unknown

Served Spanishburg.
188
1962?
Blue Bird
Unknown

Served Bluefield.
190
1962?



Served Montcalm.

Continued...






Valid XHTML 1.0!
©2020 Andrew Turnbull, exclusive of historical images.