Ed Grisamore

Macon gave Delta its roots, then wings

A Delta Air Lines jet takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, in this 2014 file photo.
A Delta Air Lines jet takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, in this 2014 file photo. AP

May is a huge month for birthdays in my family. We celebrate three of them, so we keep the oven preheated and a supply of candles in the kitchen drawer.

It is also the birthday of Huff-Daland Dusters, which could be considered a member of our extended family. It is the company that became Delta Air Lines.

If Huff-Daland had a birth certificate, it would read:

BIRTHPLACE: Macon, Georgia.

DATE: May 30, 1924.

Huff-Daland was the world’s first crop-dusting company. Its offices were in the Bibb Building in Macon. With 18 airplanes soaring through the Roaring ’20s, it once boasted the largest private fleet of aircraft on the planet.

Huff-Daland Dusters remained in Macon for a little more than a year before relocating its headquarters in Monroe, Louisiana. Four years later, it began offering a passenger service and was renamed after the Mississippi Delta region.

So, yes, Macon was the cradle for one of the world’s largest airline carriers and the oldest airline still operating in the U.S.

Our city gave Delta its roots, then its wings.

It’s somehow appropriate the beginning came in the city that was the hometown of Gen. Robert Scott, one of World War II’s most decorated pilots. It’s also fitting, since Macon was the birthplace of the late Sonny Carter, an astronaut on the space shuttle Discovery.

And that nearby Robins Air Force has become one of the most important air logistics centers in the world. Also noteworthy is the year before Huff-Daland Dusters filled the skies over Middle Georgia, a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh took his first solo fight as a young man at Souther Field (now Jimmy Carter Regional Airport), just 80 miles down the road in Americus.

My personal interest with the local Delta connection is partly because of my family’s long history with the airlines. The Grisamores have a legacy with Delta going back more than 60 years.

My mother, Charlie Curtis Smith Grisamore, was a stewardess for Delta in the early 1950s. Those were the days when stewardesses wore wool skirts and white gloves. They were not allowed to be married.

There was no such thing as a non-stop flight. A trip to Dallas would take all day. Those planes were known as puddle jumpers, and often the first stop out of Atlanta was Macon. Then it was on to Columbus, Montgomery, Birmingham, Jackson and New Orleans … bouncing across the clouds before touching down in Dallas.

My sister, Gay Hall, was a Delta flight attendant in the 1980s. My brother, Charles, is now in his 20th year as a Delta pilot. (Last August, he was the pilot who flew the Nigerian Olympic soccer team stranded in Atlanta to Brazil, a story that made national news.) My mother’s first cousin, Roy Sawyer Jr., was a longtime mechanic for Delta. His wife, Juanita, was a secretary for C.E. Woolman, one of Delta’s co-founders.

Woolman served as vice president and field manager for Huff-Daland when it was here. My mother got to meet Mr. Woolman on several occasions when she was flying.

Woolman’s background was in agriculture, so it was a twist of fate that he ended up as CEO of a major airline. His interest in airplanes was stirred when he was 20 years old and attended the first international aviation meeting in Rheims, France, in August 1909. That was the month after Louis Bieriot made history by flying across the English Channel.

He was an agricultural extension agent in Louisiana when he began working with a noted entomologist named Bert Coad in the fight against the boll weevil, which was devastating the cotton fields across Dixie.

Experimenting with the application of a dry powder (calcium arsenate) pesticide to the cotton fields, they used World War I Army airplanes manufactured by a company founded by Thomas Huff and Elliott Daland in Ogdensburg, New York.

They persuaded company officials at Huff-Daland to open a separate crop-dusting division in Macon, the heart of an agricultural area surrounded by cotton fields, peach orchards and pecan groves.

The planes flew out of Camp Wheeler and did both crop dusting and mail delivery. Because of Woolman’s ties to Louisiana, the Macon offices closed in July 1925 and began the transition to Monroe. When the growing season ended in the South during the winter months, Huff-Daland shifted its operations to projects in Mexico and South America.

Delta and its passenger service moved its headquarters to Atlanta in 1941 and surprisingly remained in the crop-dusting business for another 25 years. One of the original Huff-Daland “Puffer” planes is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington.

Every time I watch a Delta commercial on TV or see a Delta jet on the runway in Atlanta, I allow myself a measure of pride in knowing how and where it all began.

Macon may not have been a long layover, but it is where the first chapter began. It is part of our story.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.