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People of the High Country loved the ‘Big Sam’ 12-passenger van and hitched a ride to to go into town and get food or see a doctor. This poster shows the introduction of the van service and a number to call for service and information.

Illustration Courtesy of Appalcart



Originally published: 2014-06-21 15:24:57
Last modified: 2014-06-21 15:24:57

Green Eagle

by Makenzie Holland

It all started with a used 1962 station wagon.

What is now known as the AppalCART public transportation system came from humble origins, dating back to the 1960s and '70s.

Although the history on AppalCART's website only takes readers as far back as 1980, Archie Pierce, county director for WAMY Community Action in Watauga County from 1967-79, has an entire tale to tell in regard to the development of rural transportation in the High Country. And it was no walk in the park.

The purpose of WAMY Community Action, Pierce said, was to meet a need. One particularly great need in the 1960s and '70s was transportation.

When a retired couple from Florida donated their 1962 station wagon to the agency in 1967 as both a tax break for them and a contribution to the poverty programs, WAMY was running, Pierce saw the opportunity.

"It was really just a regular car, a regular big car," Pierce said. "It was not necessarily suited for transportation, but it helped us carry five or six people back and forth, up and down the community in the hollers and stuff, as we said."

The agency used the vehicle for about a year before it finally wore out. It was used for hauling people in rural communities to and from the town, to doctor's appointments, shopping, etc. After the vehicle wore out, Pierce realized they had been serving a great need and knew they had to keep moving forward with rural transportation.

They acquired a couple more vehicles, old Volkswagens.

"I called them hippie Volkswagens," Pierce said, with a laugh. "So, we used those for a while and then we latched onto this 'Big Sam,' which was a 12-passenger van."

Pierce said everyone in the area grew to love "Big Sam."

"Everybody knew, 'Hey here comes Big Sam up and down the holler. It's our day to go get our commodity foods, our day to go to the doctor, or something like that, because Big Sam is coming,'" Pierce said. "I don't know where we come up with the name Big Sam, but that was somebody's idea and we put it on the side of the bus."

As the system continued to grow, Pierce witnessed the needs of several people being met and knew WAMY was on the right track running the small transportation system.

"We saw that it was growing and we were providing a service," Pierce said. "And then somewhere along the line I think we got some money for a school bus, which we also used to make shorter trips around the county with larger groups. Then at about this time in '69, the group that was formed, we had a little group that used the system, and we called that our core group."

Pierce and the core group, which he said might be called a board of directors now but were merely called the core group then, met at Cove Creek, the WAMY county center, and decided to organized themselves into a legitimate transportation system.

Thus, the group was presented with their first challenge: Naming their system.

"I remember sitting at the table and several people were mentioning, 'Well, we could call it 'Watauga County Transportation System; some said we could call it Blue Ridge Transportation System;  some said we could call it WAMY Transportation System,'" Pierce said. "I said why don't we call it -- I wanted to pick something that was far-out, because I figured if it's far out people will remember it -- I said why don't we call it Green Eagle Transportation System."

H.C. Moretz, executive director of WAMY Community Action from 1968-94, said getting to Green Eagle Transportation System was no easy task, as funding, support and maintenance were all huge issues in early rural transportation development.

"The rural transportation problem was one of the early problems that was discovered in those workers out in the communities," Moretz said. "They encountered a lot of people in the rural areas that had no transportation, no means, they'd have to depend on a neighbor or hire someone to take them to the doctor and that type of thing."

After it was decidedly confirmed that this was an issue, Moretz and the agency began submitting applications for Office of Economic Opportunity funds, and nearly all of those applications indicated the problem of transportation in the rural areas, Moretz said. OEO was responsible for administering a substantial portion of the War on Poverty programs developed as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society legislative agenda.

At that time, the federal government was not supporting financially any transportation funds for rural areas, as all transportation funds were being directed to urban areas.  

"OEO finally gave us an additional $6,000 to start a rural transportation system, which wasn't much, but it was a beginning," Moretz said. "And that's where Green Eagle Transportation Co-op began. We set that up as a co-op so that the people would own it."

Looking back, Moretz classifies Green Eagle as a "successful failure."  
As Moretz, Pierce and other WAMY staff made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., seeking federal funds for rural transportation and Green Eagle continued to grow, it became more and more apparent that the need in the area was greater than WAMY could fund. Federal money was necessary for a transportation system to survive.

"It was a failure in that there's no way it could survive without subsidy," Moretz said. "And I don't know of any other transportation system that does even now. But it did bring attention, national attention, really, of the need, to where later we feel that it was very instrumental in helping to bring about federal funds for rural transportation. That's why I say it was successful in that effort, but a failure in its own operation."

In 1974, the North Carolina Department of Transportation created the Division of Public Transportation "to foster the development of intercity, urban and rural public transportation in North Carolina," according to their website.

"Our division was created to manage federal dollars that come from Washington," Division of Public Transportation assistant director Phillip Vereen said. "We were created to manage that process, to make sure the funds that come down go to the right systems."

As for the development of AppalCART into the system it is today, Moretz said it formed from the consolidation of services being provided by different agencies in the county.

In January 1980, the Watauga County Transportation Authority was established as this consolidation. Watauga County adopted a transportation development plan later that year that made the county eligible to receive state and federal funding and planned for the continued consolidation of existing public transportation services, according to AppalCART's website.

It wasn't until 1981 that the transportation authority began operating organizations such as Pierce's and Moretz's WAMY routes, as well as Watauga Opportunities routes. Within a year, the campus bus service was incorporated.

"The bus service has always been called AppalCART," AppalCART Director Chris Turner said. "But the rural transit became known as AppalCART in 1986."

Now, AppalCART serves the entirety of Watauga County, with 12 fare free bus routes in Boone and 10 van routes throughout the county, all of which are open to the public. Rural routes require the purchase of $20 trip tickets that can be used on the van routes, and passengers older than  are allowed to register at the Project on Aging to be picked up at their homes for transportation to doctor's offices, shopping, senior centers, etc., at least once a week.

"I'd say public transportation has its roots in the WAMY-run service," Turner said.

Moretz worked as the AppalCART board of directors chairman for many years, Turner said, and so he knows all about Green Eagle.

"I heard the stories of Green Eagle," Turner said. "In fact, the bus they got to run the Green Eagle became part of the AppalCART fleet. It was an activity-style bus. Had a four speed manual transmission."

Both Moretz and Pierce said they never thought the branches of their early efforts would end up bearing so much fruit.

"Did we see that as a goal? No, not really," Moretz said. "I would think at the time, probably what we were pushing for more, and that would be based on the objectives of a community action agency working with low income people, was providing transportation for those people out in the county that had no means of getting to where they needed to be. And when it started growing here, then we were happy with it, because the more it grew, we felt the more it would be able to sustain itself."

Pierce believes that not only did they help develop rural transportation in this area alone, but the entire United States.

"Now, that I see all these systems throughout the United States, I can say, when I go to Kentucky and I see this system running that hauls all these seniors around to the different places and all these other people, I can say that system started with WAMY Community Action in Watauga County because we're the ones that started the system that got the federal government to put the money in," Pierce said. "If the federal government hadn't of put the money in, they wouldn't have these systems."

Moretz said he could only see the AppalCART system growing, as Appalachian State University students continue to scatter further and further out in the town.

As part of AppalCART's expansion, Turner said a new bus will be added to the Teal route this fall and the State Farm shuttle will be opening a couple hours earlier.

And lying at the foundations of the evolving AppalCART system, of rural transportation today, is a rusty blue 1962 station wagon.