By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN Seventy-five years after Ralph Holt purchased his first school bus, his son, Greg Holt is proud to say Cokato Transportation is the oldest family-owned school bus contractor in Minnesota, now in its third generation of leadership.
In 1937, just one year out of high school, Ralph saw the need and opportunity for transporting rural students to Cokato High School.
To do so, Ralph sold his car, used his savings from his job at Johnson Produce, and took out a loan for $300 to purchase his first school bus a 1936 Chevrolet, 36-passenger bus.
It was a Wayne body school bus with two aisles with seats under the windows on both sides and a row of seats in the middle of the bus.
In the winter months, the bus was heated by a Greyhound heater that students would huddle near on the rides to and from school, Greg said.
Ralph’s first route provided service to 34 students south of Cokato, including North and South Grass lake, Stockholm and Dahl districts.
The north school bus service was owned and operated by Lenus Ekstrand, which Ralph eventually bought out in 1942.
Ralph, who died in 1998 at the age of 81, would often reminisce about the early years in the school bus business.
In the fall and spring months, Ralph would drive the route in mud and potholes, and in the wintertime, the gravel roads were snow-packed and icy “and the going got rough,” he said.
Back then, there was no such thing as snow days and snow drifts could reach 12 to 15 feet high. Sometimes, student riders were called upon to help push.
Ralph credited Felix Wozniak, Floyd Goranowski, and Mitchell Carlen for the excellent job they did opening the roads for the bus.
In 1942, with World War II in progress, Ralph and his expectant wife, Doris, took advantage of an opportunity for Ralph to work on the Alaskan highway.
An Alaskan highway worker’s wage was three to four times that of the local wage.
Seeing the need for expanding his business, as well as paying down his debt at Harkman Bros. Conoco Oil station, Ralph went to Alaska. In his absence, Doris ran the business with the help of Ralph’s father, Alfred, and brother-in-law, Levi Rost, who drove the routes.
Upon his return home, rural schools continued to close and consolidate, creating a greater demand for bus service.
State funding also went into effect at that time, making bus transportation expenses the school district’s responsibility. Previously, transportation costs were paid by the parents of school children. Greg recalls in the early days, his father would receive payments in the form of produce or farm goods. The state funding assured cash payments and the ability to better plan, expand, and improve the bus services.
To supplement income, and seeing yet another opportunity and need, Ralph opened an ice business in the late 1940s.
Ice was taken from Brooks and Howard lakes and stockpiled and stored until delivered to homes and businesses in the Cokato area.
By 1950, Ralph was finding it hard to maintain the buses by himself, and local garages weren’t able to provide the immediate service that was necessary for the school buses. He also had been doing all the repairs outdoors, Greg noted.
Ralph decided it was time to go to the State Bank of Cokato for a loan in order to purchase a storage shed for his buses.
Richard Peterson, bank owner at the time, said to Ralph, “Why don’t you buy the Ford garage, and maybe you can sell a car or two?”
In 1951, Ralph purchased the Ford dealership, Ryti and Watson Ford, located where the Zumba studio currently is, on Broadway Avenue in Cokato. He and Doris opened the dealership under the name Ralph Holt Motor Sales.
Despite the added workload that comes with owning a dealership, Ralph remained dedicated to driving bus.
By the early 1960s, the 25 country schools consolidated, and all rural students were riding bus. This further expanded the bus routes and by its 20th anniversary, Cokato Transportation was transporting 215 students.
The early school bus years were a big part of the Holt family life, recalled Ralph’s daughter, Julie.
“Friday was the day I could join my dad on the school activity bus and off we would go to the many school sporting events and activities,” she said. “My dad was such a Cokato Cardinal fan.”
Julie also recalled how each year in August, the lists of students riding the bus would be used to plan the routes and scheduled pick-up times.
“When Dad finished the routes, we would then drive them to make sure they worked for everyone students, drivers, and school,” Julie said.
In 1973, when Dassel and Cokato school districts consolidated, Cokato Transportation continued to service Cokato students, while the school district bused Dassel students.
Look for the second half of Cokato Transportation’s 75th anniversary article in the Monday, May 14 edition.