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The Sardine Can Bus


Before the introduction of the big yellow school bus, school-provided transportation was non-existent for the students of rural, one-room schools. Most children in North Dakota made their way to school the old-fashioned way - by buggy, sled, horseback, or on foot. But one lucky group of children rode to school in style aboard a horse-drawn tin contraption that acted as an early type of school bus. These children belonged to a consolidated school in McKenzie County. Unlike a simple one-room schoolhouse, this school had two teachers, a teacherage where the instructors lodged, a barn, and indoor toilets. Because the students of the consolidated school came from multiple school districts, they were collected by the bus and carried to and from the school house in the cold winter months.

The school bus was affectionately called the "Sardine Can" by its passengers. "We school children packed so tightly into the oblong box set upon sled runners that we thought of ourselves as sardines packed in a can," wrote North Dakota author, Erling Rolfsrud, as he reminisced about his many trips to and from school. The roof and sides of the bus were completely covered in tin, and only a dim beam of light shone through the window for the driver and a small slit cut into the front of the bus for the horses' reins. Two wooden planks were nailed to the walls of the bus for the children to sit on, and straw covered the floor.

There was no road maintenance in those days, so the driver weaved his way through the snowdrifts on whatever route seemed least hazardous. But often in bad weather, the lumbering school bus would tip over into a snow drift. "We considered this no catastrophe, however," wrote Rolfsrud. "We scampered out and tipped that tin contraption back in place. Afterwards, the driver counted noses and we went on our way."

When the weather was more pleasant, the school children could be found outside the Sardine Can, standing on the back runners or trailing behind on sleds they tied to the bus. On days like these, Rolfsrud remembered the driver joining in the fun, as he encouraged the horses to lunge forward, causing the bus to lurch, dumping a few of the trailing children in the snow. Then, he watched in amusement, as they ran to catch up. Though the Sardine Can was no shiny yellow school bus, Rolfsrud and his classmates were proud of their school's transportation. He remembered in his writings, "We who rode in the Sardine Can held our heads high."

Dakota Datebook written by Carol Wilson


Rolfsrud, Erling Nicolai. With the Wind at My Back: Recollections and Reflections. Farewell: Lantern Books, 1988.