Retired School Buses Still Serve

George W. Green
Posted on January 1, 2007

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.

The Seerley Creek Christian Church of Indianapolis sent out a 1993 purple and green, 66-foot passenger school bus converted into a mobile chapel as a summer outreach program for 800 children.

District redesigns
Local mobile projects initiated by school districts began in the 1960s and have maintained a fairly steady momentum ever since, peaking in the 1990s. Early efforts were largely madeover school buses. Now more than half of the states have mobile educational units, with New York, Pennsylvania, California, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington state in the forefront of activity.

In 1994, the Sylvania (Ohio) Public Schools converted a school bus into a technology bus to teach computer keyboard skills at seven elementary schools. The windows were replaced with sheet metal, new doors installed, and steps, lights, heating, air conditioning, carpeting and two banks of ten desks and seats were added.

The Fullerton (Calif.) Elementary School District converted two unused school buses converted into traveling digital arts studios, known as “Arts Learning Activities Buses.” Each year the bus spends 10 days at each of the 17 elementary schools. Financing has been provided by the All the Arts for All the Kids Foundation and the Rotary Club.

To promote school bus safety, the Desoto County Schools in Hernando, Miss., in 1998 developed Sidney’s Safety Bus, a fully-equipped Blue Bird bus fitted with a 1986 Chevrolet hot rod engine. It contains a TV, videocassette recorders and surround sound stereo system and other teaching aids. The bus has visited kindergarten and elementary schools throughout the district as well as in neighboring counties.

The Suffolk County (N.Y.) School District set up a school bus safety classroom in 1978. Colorado and Oklahoma state agencies have produced mobile exhibits and similar safety efforts.

At Pierce Elementary School in Birmingham, Mich., a 40-foot, black-and-white 1974 Ford Spaceliner school bus has been converted into a mock shuttle craft. The vehicle boasts a nose cone and wings that lower for “landing.”

The Phoenix (N.Y.) Central School District converted a school bus into a maintenance vehicle. The back section was separated with a body-cutting saw and 12 feet removed from the center. The back section was then welded to the front. It has been used for towing and pushing stalled buses since 1994.

Unusual undertakings
Another creative use of old school buses is the franchised Tumblebus, a mobile physical exercise program for children. And ManiaTV does its “InternetTV” program from the interior of a school bus used as a production booth control room. This live online network is aimed at college students, with film clips, music videos and chatter 24 hours a day.

In Guatemala, castoff U.S. school buses are used for public transit. Some of the buses are refurbished and repainted in various colors, while others retain their original yellow.

In 1986, the Wells Family Fiddlers began to convert old school buses into rolling homes. They took the seats out to make their own customized version. Added were two sets of bunk beds, a queen-size bed, sinks, counters, tables, cupboards and water and electrical systems. Paint: green.

Perhaps one of the most unusual uses for old school buses is reported from Ontario, Canada. When the year 2000 approached, the Ark Two Survival Community set up underground bunkers made of 42 school buses lined up adjacent to each other and connected by doorways.

The question now is: Have we exhausted secondary school bus uses? By no means. Let’s watch for innovators to come up with some new ideas in the future, which they will if the past is any indicator. The multiple uses attest to the vehicle’s inherent structural soundness, durability and unlimited potential.

George W. Green is a transportation historian, lecturer and nonfiction freelance photojournalist in Dearborn, Mich. His latest book is Special Use Vehicles: An Illustrated History of Unconventional Cars and Trucks Worldwide (McFarland).

Related Topics: school bus replacement

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