If you are 60 years of age or older you may remember seeing and or hearing about “Big Sam”.
Big Sam was the visible forerunner of the present transportation system operating in Watauga County.
Many people would not believe that the present rural national transportation system got its start here in Watauga county.
In 1967 a retired couple from Florida gave WAMY Community Action – A Community Action Agency operating in the four (4) counties of Watauga, Avery, Mitchell and Yancy Counties a used 1962 Mercury Station Wagon as a tax write-off.
I (Archie Pierce) was county director of the the community action agency at the time. We were always using our agency staff to help people get to services in the county so we decided it was easier on our budget if we used the Mercury Station Wagon to haul people to those services.
I used some of our AMY staff and local VISTA Volunteers to drive and bring people into needed county services. After several months of service we determined that the operation of this vehicle was proving to be very beneficial both in reducing our staff vehicle mileage and also increasing the number of people we could help get to county services. Many trips were made in and throughout the county. So many that the station wagon was quickly wearing out. But we had proved to ourselves that a system to get people into county services was needed.
At this point I approached our WAMY County Director, H.C. Moretz, and convinced him to allow me to have some agency funds to buy another vehicle. Our agency then purchased a “Hippy type” Volkswagon and since we were a four (4) county community action agency we had to spend the same money on vehicles in the other three (3) Counties as we did in Watauga County.
With this “Hippy VW” we were able to continue our trips to and fro throughout the county and continued to get people to services. Very little was said about our miniature rural transportation system at this point.
Sometime in 1968 we purchased a used Ford van and put the sign - Big Sam - on the side and we began advertising that we were making rural trips into and through out the county and would be making scheduled stops. We were developing a crude rural transportation system. Also, we had gained enough knowledge and information concerning the need for some sort of rural transportation need in rural counties the we decided to approach the people in Washington about our concerns.
Our first trip to Washington didn't prove to successful but we didn't give up. We continued to develop our system and started to give it a name.
I met with our code group of transportation riders and “Advisor” and we selected the name – Green Eagle Rural transportation system – as our official new system.
Things had happened rather fast during these two years from the Mercury Station Wagon to Big Sam and to Green Eagle. Several Counties throughout the state as well as an Indian Tribe from Oklahoma had heard about our system and wanted to know if it was really doing any good and would it work anywhere else.
On or about 1969 we met again with people in Washington – this was a second meeting, H.C. Moretz our Executive Director believed that if we continued to be persistant with the folks in Washington we could eventually get then interested in our rural transportation needs and our miniature system for meeting that need.
Naturally, they weren't overly impressed with our system and our thinking, that we could deal with rural transportation in a similar manner that had been done for big city system but they agreed to “study” our system. It wasn't very long until they sent a delegation to WAMY to look at our system. They seemed impressed and interested. We told them that Big Sam, and other vehicles we had acquired by then, and we had “operating” through out the system would work.
It was only a short time before we had a copy of a congressional letter or quarterly report where we saw where we were given a half page describing our system. This gave us a lot of encouragement and boosted our interest in pushing faster with our system.
We purchased four (4) new 12 passenger vans and added a good used school bus to our Watauga System. We were happy with our progress and future prospects.
Shortly thereafter we made another trip to Washington. We always had several things going that require us to go to Washington. H.C. Was the kind of Executive Director that once he set his mind on doing something he would persue it until he had achieved success. I was happy to go to Washington as many times as possible to make our need known to the powers of Washington. It was actually fun to go hob knob with the “Big Folks”.
On this trip we again met with staff from the transportation division. During these Discussions we again approached them with the idea of forming a rural transportation division within the Department of Transportation Division within the Department of Transportation similar to what they had for city systems, and of course on a much smaller scale .. as always with Washington and new ideas, they had to be convinced it would work. We told them about “Big Sam”, Green Eagle, and our other four county operations. We also told them about how much interest we had developed throughout the state and region with our present miniature system.
After much discussion they agreed to form a rural transportation component within the national DOT. My Recollection is that they agreed to fund the initial rural department with $1 Million outlay. These funds would be solely responsible for developing a national rural transportation system.
We at WAMY had accomplished what we wanted.
Our system grew. As it grew we worked with our sister WAMY counties and all the surrounding counties to work with their own county governments and help then write grants to Washington and get money to develop their own transportation systems.
On or about these developing years we started working with a newly formed regional Council of Government to get them involved in rural transportation need.
My job as head of the initial push for transportation with “Big Sam” and green eagle was handed over to others with more planning capabilities with paper work than I had. I watched from the sidelines as our system grew through many trials and tribulations.
Different things were tried to help the system grow and keep expenses low. Two things I particularly remember was the use of volunteer student interns. You really could not depend on this system because students were always calling in that they were going out of town for the week or another problem was with exam scheduled .. students had to moss when they had exams we also tried VISTA volunteers – President John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson's newly formed world volunteers in service to America core agency – but again their short terms with the agency made developing schedules with them difficult. Other things we tried like volunteers were not successful because they – by nature – cannot be reliable enough to develop any kind of transportation system. We had to hire drivers. This proved to be hard on our WAMY budget for other programs with senior citizen organizations we had developed and handicapped us from continuing doing many of the other programs we wanted to persue in the county.
We began to work with other county agencies and county government to take over and become involved in the system. We involved the region D Council of Governments into the system and they working within the different county governments who were able to put together a county system that would operate the different county systems.
In Watauga county the system was called “Watauga County Transportation”. It started operating around 73 or 74 – my memory is a little vague on some details such as dates--. In Avery County the system was called the “Avery County Transportation Authority”. In Mitchell county and Yancy Counties the county governments took over the systems.
Watauga County Transportation Authority operated their system to about late 70's. Watauga County working with Region D Council of Government decided to see if they could get the ASU administration involved in the system. The one good thing that had developed during the Green Eagle – Watauga trans. Period of time – was that several pickup points for students had been developed. This made it worthwhile to get the University involved in the system.
In Several meetings between Region D, Watauga County and ASU a new transportation system was developed. The new system was renamed – AppalCART (Appal as in Appalachain Mountains, CART as in Campus Area Rapid Transit) – to incorporate a new and fresh start. With a new name AppalCART allowed the system to continue to operate in the rural areas as well as incorporate a sizable involvement of student drivers.
All of these county systems operating throughout the state and region are heavely supported by the transportation development administration in Washington, D.C.
In Looking back over the past 45 years it is memorable to see how one little system starting with a donated 1962 Mercury Station Wagon could have had such an impact on rural transportation in America.
Article Submitted By: Archie L. Pierce
303 NC HWY 194-S
West Jefferson, NC 28694