Three-quarters of a century ago, a Conway blacksmith had an idea and went to work on it.
Dave H. Ward saw the need for safe and dependable transportation for school children in rural areas. Consolidation of small schools was underway, with the little multi-grade teaching facilities fading away in favor of more efficient schools with one or more teachers to a grade.
Centrally located schools, though, brought up the problem of getting kids to classes. Here and there, people hammered together wooden boxes with seats mounted on truck frames. Rickety rigs? Yes.
Ward’s concept was to make a school bus body entirely from steel. He did and sold the first one to the Hermitage school in south Arkansas. Then he built another and sold it. The Ward Bus Co. was born.
Dave Ward’s operation began in the worst of times. He opened a blacksmith shop on Harrison Street near downtown Conway in 1933, the same year as the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt amid the desperate hopes of a nation gripped in the dire economic times.
But Ward had two things going for him. He was innovative and creative. He worked hard. He knew that working smart might be more important than working hard, but working smart usually included working hard.
His focus moved from forging items like iron hinges for barns to this school bus idea.
It was a struggle. Today’s young people have difficulty grasping the Great Depression and the absence of money. Ward faced one Christmas with young children at home and no money for presents, so he borrowed a sum, $75 according to the lender’s later recollection, from a Conway man so his family could “have Christmas.”
Ward asked for help from above, and he told the story over and over. He asked God to help him with the infant bus business and in return he would commit the rest of his life to helping God. Ward’s repayment to this pact was through the Nazarene Church on Faulkner Street in Conway.
A Conway native recalled, “Each year, Mr. Ward would talk to classes in Conway schools and tell his story.” Ward became president of the Conway School Board in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Ward Bus Co. developed in a plant near Oak and Harkrider in downtown Conway then, as the business grew, it moved to a more spacious setting along the railroad in south Conway. Production climbed as soon as World War II ended, with the bus factory having about 100 employees in 1946, according to the book “Faulkner: It’s Land and People.”
Workers for the factory came from Conway, rural Faulkner County and other surrounding communities. The word spread that “if you got a job with Mr. Dave, you worked hard, and he took care of you.”
From the beginning, Ward buses were steel bodies built on truck chassis. The chassis came to Conway by rail, but when production was heavy and time rushed, Ward sent drivers to factories in Michigan, Illinois and other places up north to drive the chassis to Conway.
Many Conway-area people picked up some extra money as chassis drivers. Some college students did it. Some farmers made the drives when crops were laid by. It was not an easy chore. The drivers would pool together, four, five or six in a car, go the factory and get a chassis. These had no seats, no windshields. The drivers sat on wooden boxes and quickly learned to wear a pair of goggles for the run back to Conway.
By the late 1960s, ”Ward Bus” was known nationwide, and a small percentage of buses weren’t painted yellow but in another color. These were for foreign countries.
A spin-off of the Ward bus operation developed under Dave’s son Charles. First called Demographics, it handled mass mailings for the Democratic Party. Then it was Conway Communications Exchange as the computer age developed. Today the name is Acxiom. Dave Ward’s brother, Neal Ward, also began as a blacksmith and later moved to Monticello to develop a thriving boat manufacturing business.
Dave Ward had the aid of wife Bertha from the earliest days with the bus factory. Their three children were Wanda, Charles and Stephen.
A major Conway thoroughfare runs beside the bus factory and is appropriately named Dave Ward Drive.
(Log Cabin correspondent Joe Mosby can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com)