Original Air Date
Original WKMS Program interview aired on
Sounds Good, WKMS
Original WKMS story description
Paducah area native J. Polk Brooks found a unique business opportunity in western Kentucky during a time when most of the country was in financial despair. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Sarah Hopley, Special Collections & Exhibits Librarian for Pogue Library at Murray State University, about the special collection telling the story of the rise and fall of the Brooks Bus Line and the people who commuted out of the Great Depression to opportunity in Detroit and back home again.
Many in the Paducah area are familiar with Brooks Stadium, home to numerous baseball teams over the years most recently the newly re-formed Paducah Chiefs Baseball Club. It's known as "The House That Brooks Built," a riff on Yankee Stadium's "The House that Ruth Built." It's namesake, J. Polk Brooks, got his start building a company right around the time of the Great Depression.
After dropping out of high school in 1925, Brooks needed to find work. Shortly after World War I, there wasn't a lot of work to be found in western Kentucky, Hopley says. He got the idea to head to Detroit for work, as so many had. At the time, Detroit was bustling with manufacturing jobs. He worked at a body shop and quit after a few months to come back home, finish school and get married. Unfortunately, he still couldn't find work.
He then moved back to Detroit and stayed for four years. While he was up there, he noticed a lot of people coming from western Kentucky to work. He got the idea to start a taxi service. In 1929, he bought a car and started driving seven of his friends. It was a 24-hour drive; they'd leave on Sunday, work for a week and come home for the weekend.
People had been coming to Detroit from all over the country - especially western Kentucky. Farming was not making a lot of money. People would plant in the spring, work in Detroit for the summer, come back for the harvest and go back in the winter. It was a means to make the money they just weren't making from farming in the late 1920s, Hopley says.
It's a unique glimpse into how people in a rural region coped with or overcame the challenges of the Great Depression. There simply wasn't enough work in the region in this time period. Most people went to Detroit, some went to Cleveland, Chicago and Indianapolis.
The commute started with a 1925 car. He started charging in 1929 - $8 for one way (approximately $115 dollars today). If people couldn't afford it, he would often cover for them. It was a long, nonstop drive, with only a few stops along the way.
The effort was a win-win for himself and his passengers. It was a personally successful business venture and helped the community, too. In 1934, he expanded operations and bought a bus. The station was located at 5th and Monroe, where they stayed until 1970 before moving to the Greyhound Bus Station (now Paducah Beer Werks).
It was a rough ride on the bus. While the trip was eventually reduced to 11 hours, the bus had no air conditioning and no bathrooms. Brooks' daughter-in-law wrote a book about the line and remarks about the western Kentucky connections in Detroit: the grocery store there where they'd get picked up was run by someone from the region. They liked to have southerners work the ticket counter. The bus ride had a 'folksy' feel, with guitars and songs and southern hospitality.
In 1940, the company was hired by the TVA to transport workers building the dams. Charter business took off. After World War II, the boom in Detroit started to wane. By this time, many people purchased their own cars and railroads became easier to access. The line was reduced from a daily line to a weekly line. On April 26, 1980 was the last bus up to Detroit. There were three passengers on the final ride back home. By this point, they were making most of their money on charters. By the 1990s, they sold to another bus company.
So why didn't people just move from western Kentucky to Detroit? Hopley says the Brooks Bus Line is an example of people's commitment to the area. They had farms and family here. Instead of picking up and leaving Kentucky, workers chose to make this commute with the hopes of bringing home enough money to get by in the place they called home.
WKMS, Matt Markgraf, Sounds Good
Hopley, Sarah; Markgraf, Matt; and WKMS, "Brooks Bus Line: The Long Commute from Paducah to Opportunity in Detroit" (2016). Special Collections on WKMS. 15.