2017-11-02 / Life in Leelanau

In Leelanau, old buses learn new tricks

Cherry growers love ‘em
By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


OMENA RESIDENT Cheryl Parker’s converted school bus, or ‘skoolie,’ was given a colorful paint job this fall at Northport’s UnCaged festival. OMENA RESIDENT Cheryl Parker’s converted school bus, or ‘skoolie,’ was given a colorful paint job this fall at Northport’s UnCaged festival. So where do old school buses go to die?

They don’t exactly die, according to Rick Deering, transportation director for Northport School. Many of them are converted to flat bed trucks that are used by area farmers.

Deering himself has purchased a couple of the old buses. He paid $1,500 to $2,000 for one that he got in 1993 and used on his cherry farm for many years.

“It’s an awfully cheap truck,” Deering said.

Omena resident Cheryl Parker, who owns a 1979 school bus converted into a camper — aka ‘skoolie’ — agrees that many buses have a long life after their school service.

“Mine’s alive and well,” Parker said.

Parker’s skoolie, in fact, was recently given a paint job as part of an art event at the Leelanau UnCaged festival held in September.


THERE’S PLENTY of life left in this 1979 ‘skoolie’ owned by Leelanau Township resident Cheryl Parker that was converted into a camper back in the 1980s. THERE’S PLENTY of life left in this 1979 ‘skoolie’ owned by Leelanau Township resident Cheryl Parker that was converted into a camper back in the 1980s. Now it is as colorful on the outside as it is on the inside, Parker said.

Most area school districts are on bus replacement schedules. In Northport a new bus is purchased every other year to replace the oldest bus in its six-bus fleet.

There are two options for a bus that has reached the end of its school life, usually at about 10 years of age, said Northport Superintendent Neil Wetherbee.

“Depending on the state of the bus we either scrap it or put it up for auction,” Wetherbee said.

This year the district sold three buses that had been used for spare parts. The buses were sold for scrap, fetching a collective $5,000.

Deering said the buses, which have diesel engines and automatic transmissions, have a lot of life left in them after they are sold. They also get around 8-10 miles per gallon, which he said is pretty good mileage for a flatbed truck.

“There are a lot of good uses for them and they’re automatic — anybody can drive them,” Deering said.

Cherry farmer Joe Grant has six buses his family uses to transport cherries to the processor at harvest time. Grant purchased all of the buses at auction from local schools and does the work of converting them himself, which saves money.

“The cost is very reasonable,” he said, with the used buses going for about $2,000 to $3,000 each. “For us they are a good deal because we can fix things.”

Grant said the family typically likes to paint the finished trucks up with sayings like “Have you had your cherries today?” or “Eat, drink and be cherry.”

Grant also has a bus he turned into a skoolie about 15 years ago. It has a queen-sized bed and a couple of smaller beds that double as table seats during the day; dressers; a microwave, stove and refrigerator; and two Lazy Boy chairs.

“It’s really set up quite nice,” Grant said.

Parker had always admired school buses that serve as campers on websites like Pinterest, but didn’t actually have plans to buy one. Then she spotted one for sale off Eagle Highway as she was headed to go canoeing with her husband.

“I had always daydreamed about getting one,” Parker said.

They stopped to look at it on their way home and that was all it took. They got it for about $2,000, she said.

The short-style bus had been converted back in the 1980s by its owner, Zip Flees.

“It was decked out,” she said.

She changed the bedding and used a collection of saris and sarongs that she had to craft new curtains for the skoolie’s many windows.

While it doesn’t have a kitchen, it has two twin beds, a dresser and table — providing Parker everything she needs to go camping at events such as music festivals held around the state.

“Other times I just sleep in it in the yard,” she said.

Parker said the 38-year-old bus shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s like a tank. She goes down the road pretty good.”

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