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January 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Retired School Buses Still Serve

by George W. Green


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Did you ever wonder what eventually happens to abandoned, out-of-service school buses?

Oh, that’s a very easy question to answer. Worn out, they languish in the back of some bone yard, rapidly rusting to oblivion, reluctantly awaiting disposal.

Not so fast there! Refurbished school buses have proved time and again to be relatively inexpensive and expedient initial “starter” vehicles for a wide variety of projects before the second owners move up to larger purpose-built units.

Creative conversions abound, employing innovative ideas to rescue buses from the brink of obsolescence for diverse sales and service operations, religious efforts, governmental functions, children’s playhouses, rolling homes, public transit, etc.

The selected examples that follow highlight these rebirths that begin with removing all of the seats but the driver’s.

Sales and service
Crude but functional mobile country general stores and grocery stores began operation in remote rural areas during the Depression years of the 1930s in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico and New York state. Many of these mobile stores were modified school buses with shelves and counters installed. Some converted vehicles added wooden racks to carry kerosene. A few of these were still operating until the late 1940s. As late as 1992, a 66-passenger school bus was being used to sell groceries in Flint, Mich., complete with a generator, commercial refrigerator and freezer. Driver Eric Spalding stocked more than 200 non-perishable items.

In the automotive replacement market at the close of World War II, independent wholesalers sold parts and accessories to the trade in converted school buses with cabinets, bins, racks and drawers before moving up to more sophisticated custom vehicles as the business matured.

‘Cutting-edge’ operations
In 1979, a mobile slaughterhouse in New England began to serve pig farmers from a 1969 GMC school bus at the rate of 1,000 pigs a year. It was modified by installing cutting tables, shelves, water bins, a band saw and a mobile winch.

Martin Madden Sr. of Milford, Maine, operates a mobile sawmill out of an old Thomas Built school bus with an International chassis. The extra-durable unitized floor structure lends itself to such use. The conversion process involved cutting through a sidewall and adding hinges to create a convenient opening for feeding in logs as long as 12 feet. For power, an outer wheel rim was added to the rear drive wheel, a large exterior flywheel attached to the saw and a drive belt connected to the two. Madden uses a 32-foot, 800-pound M-14 FoleyBelsaw that’s longer than the bus itself.

Shelia Dawson is now on her third vehicle offering a mobile woodworking classroom to children in the San Diego area. Ten adjustable workbenches are set up in a 35-foot remodeled bus.

Outreaching, teaching
The Maine Seacoast Missionary Society of Bar Harbor has used its Recyclemobile buses to serve the needy in remote settlements in coastal Washington County for many years. The refitted school buses are driven by a United Church of Christ minister.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Jesus People movement used enormous red school buses in their street ministry, with a bumper sticker reading “Honk if you love Jesus.”

A key part of the Christian Appalachian Project is a “School on Wheels” satellite program started in 1992. The two old school buses, affectionately known as the “The Little Red School Buses,” have desks, tables and a computer and travel the rural South.

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