The Yellow Dog

Thinking back to our school days, most of us have at least a few memories that involve a school bus. Even if you had the good fortune to live close enough to school to walk, or could get a ride from Mom or Dad, school buses were a big part of the whole school experience. It’s how you got to those out-of-town football games, field trips and band competitions. It was a place where friendships were made, a few paper airplanes were thrown, and those not getting a coveted window seat learned just how long they could go without a breeze in the Florida heat. It turns out that school buses themselves have an interesting history here in Florida, one that reaches back even farther than the age of the automobile.

An early school bus drawn by two horses in Piedmont in Orange County (ca. 1900).

An early school bus drawn by two horses in Piedmont in Orange County (ca. 1900).

Florida’s first school buses were drawn by horses or mules rather than the growling diesel engines we’re familiar with today. Duval County is often credited with establishing the first horse-drawn school bus system in 1898, but it’s safe to say other counties likely had similar arrangements–or at least some of the local schools did. Teachers sometimes did double duty and drove the bus, picking up their charges every morning and then dropping them off in the afternoon on the way home. In at least a few cases, older students did the driving!

Horse-drawn school bus in Jacksonville (1898).

Horse-drawn school bus in Jacksonville (1898).

Once automobiles came onto the scene, it was only a matter of time before schools began using them to transport students. The first engine-powered school buses didn’t come from the factory looking like a school bus, however–they were converted from cars. In the earliest days of the automobile, a car body could be easily removed and replaced with whatever the owner needed–a flat bed, a series of benches for seating a crowd, or even an enclosed space for camping. So, when a local school district decided they wanted a bus, someone would remove the factory body from a Model T or similar car and add on a bus body. As school buses became more popular, companies started selling ready-made bus bodies, complete with special lights, door locks and a paint job. The Smith-Neil-Rivers Body Corporation in Jacksonville was one such company, but interestingly their standard color options didn’t include yellow–the choices were green or orange!

A wooden-bodied school bus on Okeechobee Road in Fort Pierce (1925).

A wooden-bodied school bus on Okeechobee Road in Fort Pierce (1925).

Inspection certificate for a Chevrolet Six truck modified to serve as a school bus in Jefferson County (1934). Click or tap the image to see a larger version.

Inspection certificate for a Chevrolet Six truck modified to serve as a school bus in Jefferson County (1934). Box 1, Folder 13, Jefferson County School Board Records (Series L46), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to see a larger version.

As more people bought cars and speed limits began to creep up, the safety of these early wooden-body school buses came into question. In the 1930s, state education authorities began to get more involved in regulating school transportation programs by requiring inspections and setting qualifications for bus drivers. In 1934, the State Board of Education adopted a recommendation from State Safety Director Asher Frank requiring that all school buses be painted orange with SCHOOL BUS in black lettering. That same year, the board decreed that by June 1, 1935 all school buses in the state would have all-steel bodies. In 1938, the state began requiring buses to have that familiar extendable STOP sign on the left side. A Jacksonville company made 1,102 of them for $3,028 and distributed them to the counties.

Clay County bus in Green Cove Springs (ca. 1965).

Clay County bus in Green Cove Springs (ca. 1965).

Certificate of physical fitness for Jefferson County bus driver Mrs. Pearl Walker Williams (1948). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Certificate of physical fitness for Jefferson County bus driver Mrs. Pearl Walker Williams (1948). Box 1, Folder 13, Jefferson County School Board Records (Series L46), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Although school bus body styles have gotten a few updates over the years, not to mention air-conditioning, the general concept remains the same. Over time the orange color prescribed by the state morphed into the bright yellow we know today. On a couple of occasions in the 1950s, bills emerged in the Legislature calling for school buses to be painted red, white and blue, both as a nod to patriotism and as a safety measure. Yellow won the day each time, however, and as a consequence the buses have earned the nickname “yellow dog” rather than…  well…  whatever you would nickname a red, white and blue bus.

What’s your favorite school bus memory? Share this blog on social media and include the most interesting place you remember traveling on one of Florida’s good old “yellow dogs.”