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Driving Ahead

Mid-American Coaches Looks Back on 85 Years of Transportation Service

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Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 10:00 am

If you’ve lived in this area for even a short amount of time, you recognize the bright red Mid-American Coaches buses. They’re a familiar sight, traveling down roads like moving billboards.

Likewise, if you travel much, you’ve probably seen the buses en route to other parts of the country too. It’s a reminder that this Washington-based company, the roots of which go back 85 years, has journeyed a long way from its start as a passenger bus line between Washington and St. Louis.

Began With One Bus

It was April 1927 when John Calvin, owner of the Calvin Theater in downtown Washington, hired Burt Simms to be manager of the Washington Bus Line. Calvin was president of the new company, and Simms served as manager, ticket agent and driver.

The company, which began with just one bus, was in direct competition with MoPac (Missouri Pacific Railroad) which also offered daily passenger service between Washington and St. Louis. Still, Washington Bus Line was able to grow and thrive.

Calvin sold the company to Simms, who added more buses to the fleet, more times to the schedule and one more destination —Union. He changed the company name to reflect the addition: Washington, Union, St. Louis Bus Company.

The buses caught the eye of Ralph Jones who in the ’50s was running a successful appliance store and bottled gas business at the corner of Fifth and Jefferson streets where the city library stands today. Through the window one day he noticed one of the buses turning a corner and remarked to an employee, Sylvester Brinker, that the bus company looked like it could be profitable.

Brinker, who also happened to work as a part-time driver for the bus line, responded that the business was for sale.

Brothers Roger and Dennis Jones, who run Mid-American Coaches today as president and vice president, respectively, can still remember the day their father, the late Ralph Jones, told the family at the dinner table that he had purchased the bus line.

They couldn’t have been more excited.

The brothers, who had worked at their dad’s shop, sweeping floors, dusting appliances and stamping literature with the Jones Gas and Appliance logo, saw the purchase a dream come true.

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” recalled Roger Jones, noting how he and a friend used to sneak onto the lot at Eighth and Elm streets to just look at the buses and pretend they were drivers.

“The (bus) door — how that worked — was always the fascination,” he said, smiling.

So hearing his dad say at the dinner table one night that he had actually purchased the bus company seemed too good to be true.

“I thought, ‘Wow! After playing around them and being so fascinated with them, now Dad actually owned them!’ ”

Just as they had done with their dad’s previous business, the brothers helped out at the bus company by washing the buses, sweeping them out and, eventually, driving them.

Moving Forward

When Ralph Jones purchased the Washington, Union, St. Louis Bus Line, the company included six buses — three were 29-passenger and had a same engine as an old Buick, Roger Jones recalled; and the other three were 37-passenger.

None of them had air conditioning or restrooms.

The bus industry was regulated back in those days, Roger explained, which meant the bus line was limited in what it could offer customers. It had operating authority for scheduled service into St. Louis, he said, as well as charter rights within the state.

In fact, regulation was so tight, that Jones’ buses couldn’t pick up passengers in St. Clair. They had to get to Union for pickup if they wanted to ride, said Roger Jones.

An article on the business in the September issue of the National Bus Trader magazine noted, “Five daily round trips were provided to St. Louis. Jones acquired a Plymouth ‘stretch-out’ to connect Hermann to Washington . . . Over the years, the ‘stretched’ vehicles included a ’58 Chevrolet, two Checkers, a ’67 Pontiac and at one point a Volkswagen micro bus.”

The bus line had no interstate authority at the time, meaning they couldn’t travel outside of Missouri, said Roger Jones. But his father struck a deal with Trailways to use its interstate authority, and the bus line was able to expand its charter services to out-of-state locations for the first time.

This is when the Washington company began working closely with Union and New Haven high schools to provide transportation on weeklong senior trips to places like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Niagara Falls.

Still looking for ways to expand the business, Ralph Jones in 1960 purchased Louisiana Motor Coaches, which had interstate operating authority. He combined it with his Washington, Union, St. Louis Bus Company, renaming the new venture Mid-American Coaches.

Two years later, Jones took his business to the next level by purchasing two air-conditioned coaches, which were put to use right away on charter trips to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Wash.

The buses were used, but impressive for the size and luxury they offered, especially for the time period, said Roger Jones.

“I remember being in Schroeder’s one day . . . when No. 24 pulled up outside,” he said. “It was a big deal. Everyone went out to look at it.”

Those air-conditioned buses ushered in the start of Mid-American’s tour business, said Roger. At the same time, the demand for passenger service was dwindling.

“Before, all of the shopping had been in downtown St. Louis, on Grand (Avenue) or Kingshighway,” said Roger.

But then more retail stores began opening in the St. Louis suburbs, and doctors’ offices too, he said. Suddenly it didn’t seem as far for Franklin County residents to drive to these places themselves.

“Shopping used to be a big deal,” Roger recalled. “Ladies would get all dressed up and go for the day.

“Then cars became more affordable, the interstate became more manageable and people began driving themselves.”

Touring, Charter Services Take Over

The tour business is what has really grown Mid-American into the company it is today — 19 buses and over 50 employees, including part-time positions.

About 10 percent of Mid-American’s business is in-house tours, said Roger Jones. The other 90 percent is charter services for outside tours — schools, businesses, churches, sports teams, weddings, bank travel clubs . . .

Every January, Mid-American transports members of Missouri Right to Life to the Pro-Life March in Washington, D.C.

The article on Mid-American Coaches in National Bus Trader recalls how Margo Gunn, a passenger on Mid-American’s first charter tour to Alaska, was so “delighted” that she told Ralph Jones he could cultivate a market to make it an annual trip. Ralph responded by hiring Gunn as the company’s official promoter.

“One of her successful ideas was the ‘mystery’ tour which became one of their most popular trips,” the article reads.

Over the years, Mid-American has provided buses and driven for numerous celebrities, including singers Johnny Mathis, Liberace, whom Ralph Jones drove on a one-month tour, Nellie and The Lesters.

The company also has provided transportation for the throng of support staff and reporters when presidential candidates come to the St. Louis metro area.

Dennis Jones said his first charter tour was in 1973, picking up the UCLA basketball team at the airport and driving them to the old Arena for the Final Four games.

“They ended up winning the whole thing,” Dennis recalled, smiling.

He went to practices with the team, and they provided him tickets to the games.

“When I took them to the airport the next day, they all signed the charter order card,” said Dennis.

Today’s Mid-American

The need for space — to accommodate the growing fleet and everything that goes into maintaining it — forced Mid-American back in the 1970s to relocate from its location at Eighth and Elm streets in Washington to a lot on the eastern side of Highway 47 just south of Highway 100. 

The location has served the company well for some 40 years and the Jones brothers expect it will do so for years to come.

Today the buses in Mid-American’s fleet offer passengers far more luxury than just air conditioning and on-board restrooms. There are reclining seats, panoramic front windows, video feed so riders can watch movies and wi-fi services.  

Most of Mid-American’s 19 buses are 56-passenger, although a few are 47- or 48-passenger, said Roger.

Over the years, the buses have gotten longer and wider. They are now 102 inches across, with two seats on either side of the aisle.

Driving vehicles of that size requires skill and training. Drivers are required to give a safety announcement about exits and what to do in the event of an emergency, much like flight attendants do, said Roger Jones.

Yet being a driver for Mid-American requires something more, too, the brothers, who were both drivers in the past, agreed.

“You have to be a people person,” said Dennis.

The Jones brothers are quick to point out that a big part of the success of Mid-American Coaches goes to its loyal and longtime staff members.

The company has 14 employees with over 20 years of service —  seven have over 20 years and seven more have over 30 years.

“We are blessed with many wonderful people in our organization,” said Roger Jones.

Future Has to Do With Past

Looking ahead to the future of Mid-American Coaches, the Jones brothers said they will continue the tradition established by their father, moving the company forward and looking for new opportunities.

It was 55 years ago that their dad purchased the business, and Roger and Dennis say they are proud to be in the drivers’ seats today.

“Our future has much to do with our past,” said Dennis Jones. “For 85 years our company has been blessed with customers who have traveled with us to destinations in the United States and Canada, for which we are truly grateful. They have been driven and escorted by our extremely dedicated and caring employees that have had their best interests and safety in mind.  

“If we can provide the quality service that our customers want and expect, Mid American Coaches will be here for another 85 years.”

For more information on Mid-American Coaches, visit www.mid-americancoaches.net or call 636-239-4700.

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