Driving through history
From horse drawn wagons to modern coaches and school buses, Cyr Bus Line travels through history into an elite club of 100-year-old Maine businesses
By Kathryn Buxton
It’s midday at Cyr Bus Line, and about a dozen drivers in black company jackets are gathered, waiting for the next wave of activity to begin. That’s when the company’s fleet of school buses head out to pick up students for the trip home from Old Town’s high school, middle school and three elementary schools. A fresh layer of snow covers the ground outside, and everyone is alert and ready to get to work. Outside, a coach bus pulls in to the lot, returning from its daily run to Aroostook County. The bus will be washed down and ready for its 6 p.m. departure from downtown Bangor.
It is a scene that has played out countless times over the past 100 years since John T. Cyr and his son Joseph founded the company on South Water Street in 1912. Previous to that, John had been working for the Jordan Lumber Company in Old Town. Joseph had been working for the Old Town Woolen Mill. They applied for a trucking license and were approved by the Old Town city council on May 21, 1912. John and Joseph had two horses and the company’s first jobs were hauling lumber for Old Town Canoe. The Cyrs also operated a livery stable at the family homestead on French Island (also known as Treat-Webster Island), and for many years, the Cyr stable was the go-to place if you needed a horse and buggy to visit friends or family. The company’s wagons and carriages also delivered mail and served as hearses, transporting local citizens to their final resting place.
Fathers and sons
John T. Cyr & Sons, Inc./Cyr Bus Line celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, putting it in an elite group of Maine companies that have been in business for a century or more.Old Town Canoe, located nearby in Old Town is one. Another is the famous outdoor retaler L.L. Bean, which Mike Cyr is quick to point out, is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“Cyr Bus is a fixture here,” said Mike Cyr, one of a fourth generation of Cyrs to work in the family business. “A lot of people figured we had already been here for 100 years.”
For the Cyrs, a century of company history is inextricably meshed with the family history. Through the years many family members have left their mark on the business. Four of John’s five sons – Joseph, Albert, Arthur and Harvey – worked for the company in its infancy (Clibby, a fifth son who worked in the woolen mill, eventually became an Old Town firefighter). Albert, 19 and a weaver at the Old Town Woolen Mill in 1912, was a silent partner for many years, coming on board full-time as the business continued to grow through the 1920s. Arthur and Harvey, young children when their father and brothers founded the company, grew up in the business and eventually joined their brother Albert in running the company in the 1930s and 40s after their father and brother died unexpectedly in 1934. Harvey bought out his brothers in 1951.
Today, the company is run by Harvey’s son, Joe Cyr. His brother, Pete, works in the company’s body shop. Joe’s son, Mike, oversees the company’s coach division and manages information technology – everything from the company’s two-way radio system to its computer hardware and software. Daughter Becky Whitmore is the bookkeeper. Helping them these days, is general manager Rick Soules, who the Cyrs hired not quite two years ago. Bringing Rick in was a necessity as the company has grown and diversified, and as Joe, now 71, has begun to scale back the time he spends at the office.
Working with family has always been one of the great joys of the business, according to family patriarch and company president, Joe Cyr, with the business officially for nearly 50 years. Joe drove trucks for H.E. Sargent and worked as a surveyor for James W. Sewall during the summers before coming to work at Cyr with his dad. His memories of working alongside family go even further back – to being with his dad in the office when he was six or seven, driving a company truck when he was 11 and washing buses as a kid. At 15, he was driving buses for the family concern. He also found time to get his degree from Old Town High School and a year of study at University of Maine at Farmington and another year and a half at Husson College. He left school and joined the company full-time in 1962 when a cousin who had been the company bookkeeper died. For a while, Joe was not only the bookkeeper, he served as the company mechanic, secretary and payroll clerk. In just a few years, Joe was running the company, and after his father Harvey died in 1967, he bought the business from his mother for $25,000.
Looking back, Joe said he has never regretted the decision to spend his professional life at the helm of the family firm and he always has considered himself honored to work alongside his father, son, daughter, brother and cousins.
“Frankly, I feel pretty darn lucky,” said Cyr talking from his winter home in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida where there is a small community of Old Town snowbirds. Joe started heading south in the winter 10 years ago, but he still maintains close contact with Mike, Rick Soules – Cyr’s general manager – and others via phone and e-mail several times a day. And he reels off facts about the business in quick-fire fashion.
How many vehicles in the company fleet? “250.” How many coaches? “22.” How many square feet at the company’s headquarters? “We’ve got about 20,000 under cover there,” said Cyr, stopping only to calculate the many expansions they have made at the 10-acre site since 1980.
Milestones and challenges
The company has lived through good times and bad. There was 1934 when the family’s two male patriarchs died – John in May and Joseph in August. There were also two devastating fires at the company’s headquarters on French Island. The first was in the early 1950s and the company garage and its full fleet of eight buses were destroyed. The second fire hit in 1970, destroying the company garage, an apartment over the garage and one bus. In both cases, the family and employees came together to get buses back on the road quickly.
There were good times, as well. Nineteen hundred and twenty-two was an important landmark. That was when John and Joseph Cyr helped usher in the era of the automobile. They bought the company’s first motorcars – Studebakers – to transport Old Town children to school. Four years later, after housing the company fleet at several different locations in Old Town, Cyr consolidated its operations at a single location on French Island. The area was growing, and by the early 1930s, cars were no longer large enough to transport all the students traveling to Old Town schools from Stillwater and Gillman Falls. So the city asked Cyr to buy a bus.
Cyr also had a taxi service, begun soon after the company’s founding, as well as freight hauling and storage services. By the late 1930s, brothers Albert, Arthur and Harvey were also operating a regular bus service connecting Old Town, Great Works, Milford and Bradley, with special runs to locations including Trenton and Green Lake.
By the mid 1940s, the company’s regular motor coach routes had expanded to include Old Town, Eddington, North Brewer and Bangor. The company also operated a limousine service, and during the war transported German prisoners of war for the U.S. Government to detention camps in the rural reaches of the state.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, Harvey, now head of the company, expanded its stake in the school bus business. By 1962, Joe had joined his father, Harvey, in the business full-time, and John T. Cyr & Sons boasted a fleet of 12 buses, several cars and two dump trucks at its headquarters on French Island.
In 1976, Joe purchased the fleet of Pinecrest Bus Service, the company that had been providing school bus service to the city of Brewer (two years later, Cyr bought Pinecrest’s lot and garage). Then, Cyr bid for the contract to serve the Bangor school system in 1978. They won the business. The ramifications were enormous for the small family-run firm. It required purchasing more than two dozen new school buses at a cost of about $17,000 each. It was one of the few times since Joe had taken the helm they had to borrow money, but it was, Mike recalled, a calculated risk his dad felt he had to take.
“He figured if he didn’t do it, one of the big guys would come in and take the business,” said Mike. That year, there was a 60-cent-per-gallon run up in fuel costs which caused several anxious hours for the Cyrs. At the time, fuel for buses was purchased by the bus company. Now, it is common for school systems to purchase their own fuel, and Joe Cyr said that adds more stability to contracts. Still, it all worked out well. “I still hate to borrow money, though,” admitted Joe recently.
Perhaps the biggest milestone came when the city was in the midst of a two-decade effort to redevelop French Island that had, over the years, become increasingly overcrowded. As a result, Cyr moved its headquarters across the river to its current location at 153 Gilman Falls Avenue in Old Town in 1980. Long-time local residents can still remember the day in late October when the company’s fleet of buses made their way across the bridge from the island to Cyr’s new home on Gilman Falls Avenue.
Over the years, the Cyrs have also been active in the community. The business has been a long-time member of the MBTA where Joe has served as a board member. Joe was for several years president of the Bangor Chamber of Commerce during the 1980s and has sat on several boards, including St. Joseph’s Hospital and Merrill Merchant Bank. The family was a major contributor to the Cyr Family Field House at the Old Town-Orono YMCA completed in 2001.
Close at hand
In 1984, Cyr took over the Aroostook County route, operated by Bangor & Aroostook Railroad (B & A) since 1957 when the railroad had ceased service to The County. The same day B & A shuttered its service, Cyr bought the firm’s coach bus and hired its driver. Passengers didn’t miss a day of service. Today Cyr continues to run the daily transportation lifeline to the county, connecting Bangor, Caribou, Fort Kent, Houlton, Howland, Limestone, Oakfield, Orono, Madawaska, Mars Hill, Medway, Presque Isle, Sherman and Van Buren. (The service, considered an essential transportation link, receives an operating subsidy from MaineDOT.) A Cyr bus departs Bangor every afternoon and makes the return trip from Presque Isle every morning.
In 1990, the company purchased Northstar Tours and began offering charter tours throughout the country and to Canada as Cyr Northstar Tours. In 2003, Cyr purchased Maine Line Tours & Charters, a South Portland-based division of Peter Pan Bus Lines. The move made John T. Cyr Maine’s largest charter operation, and in 2004, the company was honored as Metro magazine’s tour operator of the year. Nonetheless, the long hours and splitting energies between operations in Old Town and Southern Maine took its toll. The Cyrs sold the South Portland charter operation in 2007.
“It was profitable,” remembered Mike of the decision to sell. “But we just weren’t comfortable being in two places at one time.”
Today the company operations have become increasingly complex, with three divisions and increasing federal regulations regarding hours of service for the company’s long-distance drivers and expanded environmental requirements on buses. At the same time, this year, the Cyrs estimate, their buses will log more than 3 million miles. Mike describes the Cyr philosophy as one that has grown from his dad’s unique combination of conservative fiscal approach, a hands-on understanding of the business and a willingness to step up when someone presents a challenge. Much of their business – in both the school bus and tour charter divisions – comes to them through word-of-mouth. “My dad hardly ever says ‘no,’” said Mike. “Someone asks us to do something, and we figure out how to get it done.”
“We could have grown a lot more,” said Joe. “Instead we take what comes and do the best job we can. We’re not trying to be the biggest.”