Antique buses hold history

Friday, April 5, 2013
A large crowd of antique bus owners gathered Thursday night at the Greyhound bus station during the first night of activities being held in conjunction with this weekend's Ghosts of Highway 61 Antique Bus Tour. Public events will include an antique bus parade at 3 p.m. Saturday, The Midsouth Greyhound Adoption Option from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and a concert from Memphis recording artist Sonny Mack from 7-10 p.m. Saturday.

Hundreds of antique bus enthusiasts have flooded into Blytheville for the now ongoing Ghosts of Highway 61 Antique Bus Tour, which will feature a parade through the downtown historic district on Main Street on Saturday.

The tour has attracted visitors from all across the United States, as well as from multiple other countries. Some have converted their buses into motor homes and are spending their retirement traveling the country, and others are hobbyists who have devoted considerable time and money to restoring their bus to its original condition.

So what attracts a person to dealing in antique buses? According to Tom McNally, who is directing the tour, the reasons are mainly sentimental.

"A lot of people who attend events like this are retired bus drivers, or people who had bus drivers in their family," he said. "But the thing about commercial vehicles like these, as opposed to antique cars, is that they hold vast amounts of public history. So many people have memories connected to bus travel. Maybe they're ex-military and it was one of these buses that took them to war, or they rode the bus back and forth to college, or they were salesmen and rode the bus for work. A lot of people have these romantic memories about bus travel -- people would dress up; it was an event to travel by bus. So a lot of the attraction is also that whole 'good old days' thing."

McNally himself owns three antique buses, and says he got into the trade as an extension of his love for antique cars, which he also owns. He works as an environmental engineering consultant in Peoria, Ill., so for him, events like this are a hobby, but he said a lot of people end up attending "bus rallies" because they are interested in antique cars and "the leap from cars to buses is not as big as it would sound."

His purpose in owning antique buses is to restore them to their original like-new condition, down to the most particular detail. In the double decker cruiser he owns, which has spent the last few days parked outside the Blytheville Greyhound station, he searched around the country until he found a group of people willing to go in with him to pay for the factory in England that used to make upholstery fabric for Greyhound to re-weave some of the original seat material, on the same looms that they used in the 1950s.

The Internet and trade magazines are important tools for antique bus enthusiasts, who may have to drive halfway across the country to meet a person who has the specific part they need for their bus, as there are so few of them left with useable original parts. It was those websites and publications that McNally used to promote the Ghosts of Highway 61 event, which was based entirely around Blytheville's newly restored antique Greyhound station.

"I first saw this station in 1997," said McNally. "I was making a trip with my wife and some friends in our bus for my wife's birthday. We were going to Memphis -- and we passed through and saw this station. Of course, at the time, it hadn't been restored yet, but I kept tabs on its progress over the years because I knew it would be perfect for an event like this."

This year's tour is different from most bus rallies. McNally said it may even hold the record for most antique buses in one place at one time. Bus rallies are held every year across the country, but he said that most of the attendants own converted buses that are newer models and are now used as motor homes. At these rallies, you may see a few antique and restored buses, he said, but not many. The period station, though, inspired McNally to place an emphasis on buses that were antiques.

The tour attendees are making a day trip to Graceland today (Friday), and will return to Blytheville this evening for outdoor music, coach photos and a flea market. Saturday afternoon, the buses will parade down Main Street at 3 p.m., and then live blues band Sonny Mack will perform outdoors near the station beginning at 7 p.m.

Thursday's events included a supper served by the Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce.