20th anniversary of double decker buses
As published in The Daily Mississippian on October 31, 2014.
These days, college students aren’t the only 20-somethings making circles around the Oxford Square. This November, the Double Decker bus celebrates its 20th anniversary chugging around downtown Oxford.
The antique bi-level bus and the red phone booth on the Square, both British imports, are charged with an important duty: to enhance tourism and serve as chief marketing tools, according to Visit Oxford.
“When people come on the Square, they see them. It’s something unique and special that no other town has, which is good for us because you associate Oxford with an image,” Visitor Services Coordinator Katie Kaiser said. “They think (the bus and booth) are cute and endearing and want to come back.”
Imported from England in 1994 by former mayor John Leslie, the London Route Master bus has reached iconic status in its 20 years rounding the Square. According to the John Leslie Collection, which is housed in the Special Collections at the J.D. Williams Library on The University of Mississippi Oxford campus, the city of Oxford purchased the first Double Decker bus from London Omnibus Engineering Services of West Croydon, Surrey. After shipping, import taxes and insurance, the total cost of the bus was approximately $28,000, according to a December 1994 report by The Clarion-Ledger.
Since the bus’s arrival, the revenue brought in from Double Decker bus rentals has far exceeded the initial cost. This year alone, Double Decker bus rentals have brought in almost $15,000 since January, according to City of Oxford Bus Coordinator Kaitlin Wilkinson. The City of Oxford has also purchase two additional buses since 1994.
A year after the bus’s appearance in Oxford, the town was named in “The 100 Best Small Towns of America” by author Norman Crampton. Around the same time, the red phone booth – or “call booth” as the British say – was donated by John and Laura Valentine of Oxford. Marketing the bus and the phone booth as icons is one of many ways Oxford plays up its charm, Kaiser said.
Each Friday during football and baseball season, Visit Oxford offers tours of the Square, historic North Lamar Boulevard and the university on the bus for a $5 fee, plus tax. The bus seats 64 people, with 36 seats on the upper, open-air level and 28 seats on the lower level.
Leading the tours is fifth generation Oxonian Jack Mayfield, a 1968 graduate of the university and former history instructor at South Panola High School in Batesville and Northwest Mississippi Community College in Oxford. Mayfield’s tours incorporate both the public history and his own personal history of Oxford, providing a deeper understanding of the town that cannot be found in a textbook, Kaiser said.
“I’ve lived in Oxford for three years and have been visiting since I was a kid. I learned things on the tour that I would’ve never known,” said Emily Huddleston, senior education major, after attending Mayfield’s tour on Sept. 26.
The diverse crowd of visitors that arrive each week for the tours is one of Mayfield’s favorite things about being the official tour guide, he said.
“The tours that I do — those people are from everywhere,” Mayfield said. “They just love riding around on the Double Decker bus and hearing stories about the places we pass.”
Mayfield has given tours to groups from all over the world, including Iraq. A group of Iraqis visited the area to purchase armored cars from a vendor in Holly Springs and made a trip to Oxford to experience a ride atop the big red bus.
“They had a translator on the bus with me,” he said. “It was the neatest thing. It’s just amazing the way people want to see Oxford.”
Mayfield said he believes the power of the bus’ iconic status encourages Oxford residents and visitors alike to remember the town’s new and old histories.
“Oxford was founded to be the seat of learning for the state of Mississippi. When you see the old English busses, you think of Oxford, England, and the university there,” Mayfield said. “It just ties the old world with the new world, you know, together.”
According to Kaiser, Thomas Dudley Isom, known to be Oxford’s first white settler, suggested naming the town Oxford after the university town of Oxford, England, in hopes that there would be a university here. The University of Mississippi opened 11 years later.
“That name link was intentional then, so we love to play it up today. The phone booth, the Double Decker bus, the education – they are meant to remind us that the prestige of England is still sought after here,” Kaiser said.
This attempt to instill the British aura in the small, Southern town does not go unnoticed. Mayfield has spoken to several British tourists who felt an authentic connection between their homeland and the college town. While in Oxford for the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, a British tourist felt a personal connection to the Double Decker bus, Mayfield said.
“One guy told me about the tag on the back of the bus. He could tell me how old the bus was,” Mayfield recalled. “He said he probably rode that exact bus in London because it said (a London street name) on the back.”
Also in the John Leslie Collection is an undated photograph of a massive British flag parading down South Lamar Boulevard, sprawling the entire width of the street as it is marched toward the Lafayette County Courthouse. This idiosyncrasy of the British ambiance contributes greatly to the allure and charm of Oxford, according to Mayfield.
The Double Decker bus and telephone booth leave a lasting impression on tourists even after they leave. Kaiser was tickled one day after a surprising phone call revealed the pervasiveness of the Double Decker bus and red phone booth images.
“A woman called me and said, ‘We actually went to Europe after we came to Oxford, and we saw your telephone booths all around England,’” Kaiser said. “I thought, ‘Is she serious?’ They’re from England. We didn’t come up with them. She actually thought the telephone booth originated in Oxford, Mississippi.”