FAIRMONT — Mark Bowyer is proof that you better pay attention in math class.
For years, Bowyer has made a living as a carpenter and woodworker, but in the last 10 years, he has taken the deepest of dives into the history of Marion County Schools. He said he is almost finished writing a book about the history of the school district.
Bowyer is also a member of the Marion County Historical Society and will have a display booth at the Society’s upcoming History Expo planned for Saturday, March 25 at the Marion County Courthouse.
He wanted to come up with something unique to show at the expo, so he merged his hard skills of woodworking with his passion for the history of education.
“I love building stuff and I thought this would be an interesting, catchy thing for my display about the schools and people would (become engaged),” he said.
From scratch, he built a horse-drawn school wagon, the precursor to the big yellow school bus.
“I built this replica model from pictures of advertisements in the bi-annual reports of the state superintendent of schools. They used to advertise them in the teacher’s directory — I got them from the WVU Regional Historical Collection.”
He said he was out recently with his family having dinner at Cracker Barrel, when his father Rev. Dick Bowyer — who knew Mark was working on the horse-drawn wagon — looked over and saw horse figurines for sale in pairs of two.
“We were at the cash register, and my dad was taking us all to dinner and he looked at me and pointed over my shoulder and said, ‘Did you notice those horses over there? Would those be anything...and they just coincidentally happened to be one inch per foot to scale and just worked perfect for this wagon,” Mark Bowyer said.
After he saw the horses, he extrapolated the dimensions of what the wagon should be compared to the height of the Cracker Barrel horses.
“I kind of just guessed at what the wagon wheel would be and kind of guessed about how long the dimensions would have to be and then, when I looked at the horses, I went back out to Cracker Barrel with a tape rule and measured the horses before I bought them,” he said.
“And then I bought a skill rule and measured my drawings, which were real close to one inch per foot. And I said, ‘Well, those horses would be just perfect,’ so the next Sunday I went out there and I bought them.”
Built completely out of maple wood remnants Bowyer had on hand in his shop, he put together other parts of the wagon using sheer creativity. The roof, for example, is cut from a piece of painting canvas his friend, artist Charlie Cowger, of Fairmont, donated to him.
“I’ve gotten some really good feedback on it. People that I’ve shown it to are really interested in it,” Mark Bowyer said. “It has benches where the kids would sit. It has a set of stairs on the back and a door.”
Its sides are painted a dark green and on it are hand stenciled in gold the words “School Wagon Mannington District Schools.”
“It was used basically to get the kids of the rural areas of West Virginia and Marion County and get them to the high schools,” he said.
Cowger said he is impressed with Bowyer’s handiwork.
“Really, all I did was give him my feedback on it when he showed it to me,” Cowger said. “It looks like he did a great job.
“He made all of the suspension, all of the undercarriage — that’s all made by hand. I was really impressed with it.”
And because he is writing a book about local public school history, Bowyer has immense knowledge of what came after the horse-drawn school wagon.
“The first school buses purchased in Marion County was in 1925 by the Mannington District Schools,” Bowyer said. “They purchased three Chevrolet buses.”
Bowyer said he has so many work hours in producing the school wagon, that it would be too expensive to imagine someone buying it from him.
“I’ve been working way on it for about five weeks. There’s no way I could sell them and make any money for my time — let’s see, 40 hours a week for 5 weeks times $30 an hour — nobody’s going to spend that kind of money,” he said.
Historical Society President Dora Kay Grubb said this year’s expo will be the first one held in-person in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous years, as many 1,000 guests attended the event, which was born out of the idea of education local residents about the area’s rich history.
“I think it’s important for our youth to realize that history is important because you can’t move forward until you learn the positive and negative things we’ve done on the past,” Grubb said. “We’re a product today of the things that happened previously.”
The Marion County History Expo begins at 10 a.m. and will be staged on all three floors of the county courthouse on Adams Street. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.
The Expo includes four musical acts and lessons on Civil War-era dancing led by Art and pam Dodds as Gov. Francis Pierpont and wife Julia.
Joining Bowyer are other groups showcasing such local historical aspects as the Northern Appalachian Coal Mining Heritage Association and a new addition this year called “History in Skirts.” Led by Fairmont Catholic School’s Rachel Ellis, students will portray famous women in history.
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