Women’s liberation was nothing new to Olive Russell of Round Hill Road in Bethany. For about 15 years, beginning in the early 1920s, she drove a variety of school buses, from horse-drawn to motorized. Olive raised 12 children while helping her husband with their farm and a herd of 35 cows, and she enjoyed outdoor work, whether tending a large
vegetable garden or mowing hay fields.
Mrs. Russell began driving four of her children to school by horse and buggy because they had a 2 1/2 mile walk to the one-room Center School. The second year, the town began paying her to drive her own and neighbors’ children. The buggy soon was replaced by an old bakery wagon, which somewhat resembled a stagecoach. Somehow, 15 kids “squoze” into it. They would get out and walk up one particularly steep hill because they felt sorry for the horse.
“The transportation grew like the kids,“ Mrs. Russell said. A large surrey with a roof and let down canvas sides for rain, soon became necessary. The first day she drove it there was a terrible thunderstorm. School was in session from 9 AM to 4 PM and was not canceled for bad weather.
The family rose at 4 a.m. to do chores before school. When there was a new baby, Mrs. Russell’s husband substituted on the bus route. On one occasion, she drove a load of milk to Seymour the day one of her daughters was born. In the winter time, a pair of horses was hitched to an open “bobsled,“ or sleigh, which had two rows of facing seats along the sides for about 15 children and a driver’s seat up front.
Although winters were no colder then, temperatures stayed cold and snow remained on the ground all winter. Often it piled up as high as the fences or higher. Roads were not scraped until the advent of the car, but winter vehicles were designed to ride over snow. Mrs. Russell recalled driving when it was 11 below zero. Although she never wore gloves, she said long-johns and blankets were essential in the sleigh. Hay underfoot and hot bricks wrapped in newspapers kept toes toasty. The bricks were heated in her woodstove twice daily.
It wasn’t only weather that made the Russells convert to a Ford suburban station wagon for school transportation: the noise of the “newfangled” cars scared their horses.
The Russells subsequently owned two different green school buses. They made two
runs, one locally and the other to high school, first in Seymour and, thereafter, in New Haven. Later, son Merritt also drove a school bus. They eventually sold the bus service, because it became unprofitable when the town refused to give them a raise.
By Linda Wooster, based on excerpts from an article written by Barrie Tait Collins.