Dave Ward: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

If ever there were a more appropriately named street, it would have to be Dave Ward Drive. Dave Ward was a hard-working successful Conway businessman who built yellow school buses and in the process created hundreds of jobs for the local economy.

The road itself is a relatively recent addition. When I was growing up on nearby Nutter’s Chapel Road, the only part of the road that existed was a section from about Ash Street to what is now Country Club Road. It was called Hartje Lane and was only partially paved. In the 1970s, a two-lane highway, Highway 286, was built to connect Highway 65 to the Arkansas River. It would be renamed Dave Ward Drive when the road was remodeled in the 1990s.

Dave Ward was a hard-working local blacksmith, operating a shop on Harrison Street in the early 1930s. He and three employees shoed as many as 100 horses a day as well as working on other projects. He was responsible for building the Toad Suck Ferry, which operated across the Arkansas River until the Toad Suck Bridge was built in the early 1970s.

In 1936, Ward was asked to raise the roof on a wooden bodied bus. Later that year, he decided to build his first steel bus body and by 1939, he began to focus his efforts on building school bus bodies. He also built his first bus plant on Harkrider, a block south of the main intersection.

As the business grew, the 10,000 square-foot shop eventually became a 100,000 square-foot facility. In 1952, he built a 1.5 million square-foot plant on a 200-acre site on Highway 65 south of Conway. This plant turned out 10 to 32 buses a day. At one time as many as 1,200 employees worked here and it was the largest school bus builder west of the Mississippi River. Highway 286 (later Dave Ward Drive) would be built south of this bus plant. Passersby would drive by row upon row of yellow school buses sitting in the fields awaiting their final destination.

The Conway bus plant was not his only operation. He had a bus plant in Mexico City from 1947 to 1954 and a plant in Austin, Texas from 1951-1970. He also had plants in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. The bus parts were usually produced in Conway and then shipped to these locations for assembly.

In addition to Ward Body Works, Ward owned C.S. Sash, Inc. (later Surelite) which was formed in 1956 to produce the aluminum sashes and insulated glass for his bus windows.

The plant also assembled the auxiliary heating units that went in the back of the buses and had a plastic injection plant for making various plastic casings. It was located south of the bus plant.

Charles and Steve Ward, Dave Ward’s sons, would eventually become involved in running the businesses.

In 1969, they launched Demographics. Located about a quarter-mile east of the bus plant, Demographics was a computer center that handled Ward’s basic inventory and company control needs.

Demographics also provided a direct mail service for the Democratic Party of Arkansas. It would eventually expand to provide other computer services. In 1975, Charles Ward sold it to Charles Morgan who had joined the company in 1972. Morgan changed the name to Conway Communication Exchange in 1980 and CCX in 1983. In 1988, it became Acxiom.

Dave Ward passed away in 1985. In 1993, the Wards sold the bus plant to American Transportation which was later bought out by International Corporation. The bus plant closed in 2009 when International consolidated its operations. Today, if you drive down Dave Ward Drive, you can see the empty field that used to be full of yellow Ward school buses. The buses are only a memory but Dave Ward is remembered along the road that bears his name.