Originally created 05/17/99

Pioneer in bus driving recalls hand-cranked vehicle



SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In a state that sometimes is criticized for its education rankings, Spartanburg cranked up school bus transportation years before the rest of the nation.

The federal government didn't start compiling statistics on bus transportation until 1929, four years after Estelle Stewart (then Jones) drove the dirt-road route from White Stone No. 25 to Pacolet High School.

"I drove in 1925 and 1926," Mrs. Stewart, 90, said recently. "I was the first woman in Spartanburg County that drove a bus."

Mrs. Stewart didn't even get paid for her work.

"Daddy was a trustee, and he assigned me to drive it because I knew how," she said. "I guess they paid Daddy, but they didn't pay me."

The 14 people who rode the Model A bus were members of her graduating class. She still can name them all.

She remembers parking the bus at Robinette's Garage in Pacolet and walking to the high school. She left it there so the men at the garage could start the bus for her in the afternoon.

Her father, Leslie Jones, cranked it in the mornings -- literally. The bus had a permanently affixed crank on the front that had to be turned to start the engine.

"Hopefully, it wouldn't stop on the way," she said. "If something went wrong with the motor, Mr. Robinette would fix it."

Mrs. Stewart didn't have a drivers license back then. They weren't required. She nevertheless has a driving record anyone would be proud of: In more than 70 years of operating motor vehicles, she never even had a parking ticket.

"I've gone 90 years without one citation and without having to deal with the press. That's pretty good, I'd say," she said.

She can remember getting in trouble only one time, but that was for not driving the bus.

When the ending school bell rang one afternoon, her passengers said they were staying behind to watch a ballgame between Pacolet and Pacolet Mills.

"I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a teacher there to tell me, so all of us stayed," she said.

When she drove into White Stone, one of the trustees met her.

"He found out everyone was OK, but there were no more ballgames," she said.

Mrs. Stewart had a varied career after graduating. She did a stint at Reeves Brothers Mill in Saxon and also worked in the meat department at the Community Cash store on West Main Street.

But it was her bus driving career that she handed down to her nephew, William White of Cowpens, and to his son, Bill.

"I carried my grandnephew out" to show him the ropes of bus driving, she said.