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Lobbied against Iowa's a ton-mile tax--Zelle founder of Minnesota's Red Bus Lines bought the Iowa Red Ball Bus Line in 1930: Edgar F. Zelle (1890-1978)

Edgar F. Zelle (1890-1978)
Transportation Mode:
Other Passenger Bus
Company/ Affiliation:
Red Bus Line

Edgar F. Zelle helped in his parent’s shoe store during grade school and high school, gaining some knowledge of small-scale business. Wanting more than a routine job he realized that higher education could open doors to success, calculating if he used his savings of two years and found a part-time job, he could finance a degree at the University of Minnesota.

In 1913 at the age of 23 Mr. Zelle recognized a business opportunity; organizing a company that would lease trucks to contractors who were constructing Minnesota highways and other local wholesale and manufacturing firms.  Once the company was doing well he and a partner started the Red Bus Line in 1918 to capitalize on Minnesotans'’ desire to increase their mobility.

The Red bus Line was one of several out of the Twin Cities, which later added other lines gaining passengers and a good reputation through reliable service and reasonable fares. For example travelers bound for Minneapolis paid $1.00 from St. Cloud, $1.50 from Little Falls, and $2.00 from Brainerd.

In 1925 the Red Bus Line was sold to purchase the Jefferson Highway Transportation Company.  With the purchase of the Iowa Red Ball Bus Line in 1930, Mr. Zelle became the dominant independent operator in Minnesota and Iowa, serving 83 cities in Iowa with connections to Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Mr. Zelle had taken care of his employees during the early years. Nearing the end of 1931, the economic depression was making a marked impact on the company’s financial position.  To avoid employee dismissals and schedule reductions, he asked all of his employees to take a 25-percent pay cut.  Poor economic conditions were affecting the deteriorating balance sheet along with the Iowa tonnage taxes. The states ton-mile tax of 0.025 cents plus a license fee and gasoline tax were a burden.  Even without the tax the operation would have lost money partly due to the prevalence of private automobiles and partly because of the economic depression.

 Appealing to the Iowa state government and the public in the spring of 1933, he lobbied senators and congressman and recruited others—bus operators, retailers, bankers, and passengers—to do the same. Later that year Iowa reduced the tonnage tax to .02 cents. His efforts and the support of others made bus travel sustainable in IA. Nationally his impact was even greater as a public spokesperson for the industry.

Edgar Zelle was in the bus driver’s seat for more than 35 years. He saw the bus industry emerge from its boisterous pioneering days to become a responsible and essential link in the country’s transportation network. He choose not to become a part of a large organization, preferring to run a compact, family-style company.

In1986 Charles Zelle returned to Minneapolis and the family business Jefferson Lines determined to save it for his grandfather.  The company’s reorganization shed routes and lowered bus numbers but returned to profitability. In the process, Charles Zelle really appreciated an operating company, and the commitment, and the humanity of the employees and towns, and the great range of experience, working for a bus company. He felt he was just tremendously lucky, because it wasn't out of any kind of grand plan of his own. It was much more a kind of plodding, and sheer persistence, and dogged family stubbornness.

The industry and technology award for Edgar F. Zelle was accepted by Dr. Walter Warpeha of Minneapolis, who nominated Mr. Zelle. 

April 1911 Red Ball Transportation Company opened 1st passenger bus line in IA, operating between Charles City & Waverly
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