“We’re not trying to make money,” says Walter Wade. “We just want people to have a good time and enjoy this art.”
Wade is co-owner of Alonzo Wade Used Cars and Auto Parts, a business his father started in 1959 about an hour northeast of downtown Atlanta, in Habersham County’s North Georgia Mountains foothills. And that statement sums up Wade’s hugely hospitable mantra—so long as you’re not a knucklehead, or a thief—when it comes to the massive security measure in his backyard that’s become a public art mecca for tourists and muralists around the globe.
Around the border of Wade’s five-acre junkyard is a collection of urban-style murals like you might find along Atlanta’s Wylie Street, but on a most unusual canvass: the carcasses of decommissioned school buses, RVs, and tractor-trailers, all lined up along a scenic, rural highway.
More than 120 buses line the perimeter of Wade’s business and home property, where he lives with his wife, Deb.
Wade is a school bus driver when not selling junked cars piecemeal, and the business has long sold used buses. Just prior to the Great Recession, when prices for scrap metal had skyrocketed, rampant thieves picked apart many of Wade’s offerings, with a special appetite for bus radiators. In hopes of thwarting them from entering the junkyard, he forged an imposing fence out of the depleted vehicles.
One day, Wade noticed a strange addition: a graffiti tag of a ghost, with a curt message: “Sorry About The Bus.” The culprit turned out to be one of his bus riders.
“It was good. I liked it. I really liked it!” says Wade. “It took me a while to find him, to ask if he wanted to come back and do some more.”
Around 2010, those first pieces on so many old buses caught the attention of a local artist who has worked on murals in multiple cities. (That artist declined an interview and asked not to be named.) He sought Wade’s permission to paint large-scale pieces, which was granted, on two conditions: All artwork had to be family-friendly, and no climbing anything.
That artist has helped organize art festivals to attract more muralists. Webpages about the “School Bus Graveyard” popped up.
Before long, Wade’s 50-year-old business was better known for whimsical street art than its huge cache of rare auto parts.
“One lady, when they had the art festival in August, she came on vacation from Ireland and wanted to paint, and she went at it with the artists,” says Wade with a laugh. “We’ve had artists from Quebec, San Diego, Los Angeles, Colorado, Las Vegas, Tampa, one or two from Atlanta.”
But art enthusiasts have come from farther.
Wade estimates tens of thousands of people have stopped by over the years, and off the top of his head he recalls meeting some from Ethiopia, Japan, Iran, and Norway.
One time, he left a space for people to sign their names and note where they’re from. In just three weekends, 42 U.S. states were represented.
Wade and his family donate cars for elementary and middle school kids to paint. Ditto for college students learning photography and their instructors—free access to vehicles with a half-century of rust patina, which make for gorgeous photos.
As a roadside attraction, Wade points out, the artwork has cross-cultural appeal.
“Hispanic girls have their [quinceañera] here at age 15; busloads from Atlanta park at our neighbors’, and they take the boys in the suits and girls in pretty dresses, and they’ll come with a band, have a big cookout,” says Wade. “It’s amazing some of the stuff they’ve done. We’ve had two or three movies shot down there. I don’t know how many drones. My granddaughter about got hit Saturday by somebody flying their drone over the house!”
Some in the local community have grumbled about the School Bus Graveyard’s popularity, but Wade estimates they’re outnumbered up to 30 to 1. A handful of Atlanta lawyers, in fact, have offered pro bono assistance if anyone should ever try to shut visitors out.
“There’s nothing dirty about it, nothing illegal about it—it’s just unique,” says Wade. “It’s a never-ending story because there’s always something different. It’s always evolving.”
Find the School Bus Graveyard by traveling about an hour northeast of downtown Atlanta, up Interstate 85 and then I-985 (Ga. Highway 365; or U.S. 23) to the Crane Mill Road exit in Alto. As the novel coronavirus persists, it’s of course paramount for visitors to practice social distancing.