Okanagan's first school buses were makeshift affairs in the early 1920s

Valley's first school buses

What would it have been like to ride a school bus in 1924?

Well, it certainly would not have involved the bright yellow paint and cracking vinyl seats we’re used to today. In fact, Vernon’s first bus was mostly made out of wood.

As more families began to settle in the Okanagan Landing and Greater Vernon areas, a form of transportation was needed to bring children to school.

Fred Downer stepped up to the plate, and built the first school bus on a Ford Model T chassis in 1924, perhaps inspired by the design of the Armstrong school bus, which had been built by Joe Glaicar a few years earlier (reported to be the first in Canada!).

Like the one in Armstrong, Downer’s bus had wooden walls, but included screen windows, while Glaicar’s had canvas curtains that could be let down or rolled up as needed. Exhaust pipes ran down the centre of the floor to keep the bus warm during the winter. Apparently, the smell of scorched rubber was common in these early school buses, as the students would put their feet on the pipes to warm up, and melt their school shoes in the process, undoubtedly to the great chagrin of their mothers.

The wooden walls and lack of insulation earned these early buses the nick name of “chicken coops.”

Regardless, Vernon’s first bus was well used from the get go. More than 40 students were driven to school on Downer’s bus by driver Ed Cooke during the 1924-25 school year.

The bus ride offered a chance to visit with friends and sing a song or two. 

Winter was a particularly thrilling time to ride the bus. Unsurprisingly, Vernon’s roads were not paved in 1925, but sometimes they weren’t even plowed.

Because many residents still travelled in horse-drawn buggies, a layer of snow was needed for the sleigh runners. It wasn’t unsual for the trip into Vernon from the Okanagan Landing to be a little hairy on a snowy day. The addition of plow blades near the rear wheels greatly helped early buses to navigate through an Okanagan winter. However, it did put their drivers at odds with locals who now had to contend with their sleigh runners being damaged by cleared roads.

But the wheels on the bus had to go round and round so that Vernon’s children could get to school. 

Gwyneth Evans is community engagement co-ordinator with the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives.

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