Thursday, May 14, 2020

A matter of historical record: The story of Windham’s first school bus

By Walter Lunt

Fun fact: The driver of Windham’s first school bus had to first build it before transporting the children.

During the early decades of the 20th century, small rural schools were closing in favor of fewer, larger buildings. One-room schoolhouses, located within walking distance of the scholars, were fast disappearing. Additionally, the emergence of high schools that served very large districts further necessitated the need for transportation. Windham schools budgeted for conveyance (student transportation) through the mid-1920s, according to Windham Town Reports. However, this was not bus transportation. Families arranged their own rides in private vehicles, and often paid the driver directly, usually five cents per ride.

Windham's first school bus
was a converted Model-T truck
(Photo courtesy of Windham Historical
Society and Neil Lowell)
Due to increased numbers of students attending Windham High School, located at Windham center, the demand for conveyance increased, especially for students living in North and South Windham. Eighty-nine students were enrolled in the high school in 1928.

Responding to the need, Ralph Lowell, a local mechanic, had an idea: a coach-sized vehicle that could carry multiple scholars. That, he reasoned, would translate into multiple nickels.

The enterprising Lowell, an employee of Cliff Morrill’s Garage near Foster’s Corner, set to work in his back yard converting his old Model-T truck into a coach. He extended the back frame and built a box-like wooden body. Wooden planks afforded seating. Voila, the first school bus.

In the 1929 Annual Windham Town Report, the report of the Superintending School Committee stated: A change was made this year (1928) in the transportation of the scholars to the High School from North and South Windham. A contract was made with Ralph Lowell to convey the pupils by bus, the High School transportation money being used for this… scholars paid 50 cents per week besides.

Neil and Ruth Lowell, Ralph’s son and daughter-in-law commented recently from their home in North Carolina, “It’s (part of) the family story that, due to the need, the bus was his idea…In 1930, he bought a new Chevrolet truck and extended the frame by six more feet. (To this) he added seats (possibly) from abandoned passenger cars.”

Reportedly, the new seats were padded and covered in black imitation leather. In addition to being more comfortable, the new bus also carried a greater number of students. The bus schedule, however, was less than ideal. After students from one part of town were dropped off at the high school, the arrivals had to be put in study hall until the bus returned with students from the other end of town.

In 1936, Windham purchased two first full-sized commercial buses (although one, purchased late in the year, did not go into service until September 1937). The pair covered the entire town, however private vehicles continued to serve three one-room schools.

Beyond being a bus-builder, Ralph Lowell is remembered for his kindness and good humor. His niece, Patty Buck, who resides in Windham, still refers to him as “my favorite uncle.”

“He loved to talk. He would drop anything he was doing to say hello, give you a hug, tell a story or find out what was going on in your life. He made you feel special, like you were the only person in the world at that moment.”

The kids on Lowell’s bus got the same special treatment. Buck tells the story about a little girl who moved to River Road from South Portland in 1933. Ralph knew the family and learned that the girl was nervous, not only about going to a new school (in this case, Newhall) but about riding a school bus for the first time. The day before school opened, Ralph visited the family and explained what the bus ride would be like and the time that he’d be picking her up. To ease her anxiety, he saved the seat behind the driver just for her. It remained her seat for the rest of her school days, through eighth grade.

Until the day she passed at age 92, that girl would tell the story of Ralph Lowell, often summing it up this way: “He was quite a guy, the nicest and most handsome man I ever knew.”

Buck said her uncle went hunting on several occasions with her father, Mac Lyons.

“Uncle Ralph wanted to experience hunting. He carried a gun, but my father would say, ‘He’s got buck fever.’ Ralph just couldn’t bring himself to harm an animal.”

Caring about the kids he transported didn’t always translate to friendliness. Sometimes he felt they needed to be taught a lesson. When the older ones acted out on his bus, he would give one or two warnings; if the behavior continued, he would stop the bus.

“Okay, you’re off!” was the familiar refrain – no matter how far from home the adolescent was.
Ralph Lowell’s thoughtfulness, patience and friendly disposition was acknowledged by his youthful admirers in 1935 when the Windham High School yearbook, Windonian, was dedicated to him.

Beneath his picture read:

The students of Windham High School
Gratefully dedicate this issue of
The Windonian to
Ralph M. Lowell
Our genial bus-driver and friend

Lowell’s contributions beyond the driver’s seat continued for another 20 more years, interrupted only by work at the South Portland shipyard during World War II.  

One-year, veteran elementary teacher Isabel Taylor, who was teaching a unit on Windham history, was looking for a volunteer to give her students a history tour of the town.

She recorded the result of her search later in a memoir: Ralph Lowell, one of our bus drivers, took us on a three-hour trip around our town. Being familiar with the town’s landmarks and history, we found him extremely helpful.

Lowell’s tour caught on and became a tradition. In later years Windham Historical Society volunteers carried on the tours, and they continue to this day.

Lowell drove a Windham school bus for a total of nearly 25 years, contributing to the community and its children in countless ways, leaving behind countless memories. Today, everyone agrees, he was quite a guy.  <

No comments:

Post a Comment