Can’t say I really knew there was a place called Monroe, Louisiana before staying there last week. If you are a Delta Air Lines fan, then this is a story you might know, and if you don’t know about Delta’s connection to Monroe, LA before the airline moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1941, then this is a piece of fascinating airline history for airheads/aviation geeks.
Cotton and the birth of Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines grew out of a crop dusting service from the 1920s. Cotton as an agricultural crop is central to the story of the birth of Delta Air Lines, the world’s largest airline in 2016.
Louisiana was a major cotton growing region of the South from the early 1800s up until recent decades. The state now ranks about 12th in the USA for cotton and is not even in the top 10. Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama are the largest cotton producing states. In the 1890s, the boll weevil insect pest came from Mexico and began ravaging cotton fields through the south as it migrated across the cotton belt. The destruction of cotton crops from the 1910s to 1920s reduced production by nearly half across the southern United States. At the time nearly 2/3 of all African-American tenant farmers/sharecroppers were employed in cotton production and harvesting.
In 1924 Collett E. Woolman and B.R. Coad of the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked in Louisiana researching chemical solutions to eradicate boll weevil infestation of cotton crops. Their research indicated “dusting” cotton fields with a pesticide was the most effective way to eradicate the boll weevil. They established the world’s first aviation “crop-dusting” aviation company in Macon, Georgia in 1924.
Joseph and Malcolm Biedenharn and the Monroe Connection to Delta Air Lines
Seeking to expand the company with more aircraft brought in several investors in 1925, including Joseph Biedenharn and his son Malcolm of Monroe, Louisiana. Joseph Biedenharn was the initial bottler of Coca-Cola in 1894 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Coca-Cola had only been a soda fountain drink from its creation in 1886 up to that point.
Joseph Biedenharn moved his family from Vicksburg to Monroe, Louisiana in 1913. In 1925 the Biedenharn’s were some of the original investors in Huff Daland Dusters and their capital investment helped expand the aircraft fleet of crop dusters to 18 planes, making it the largest privately owned aircraft fleet in the world . Their crop dusting operations extended across the South and west to California. Huff Daland Dusters headquarters moved to Monroe, Louisiana.
In 1928, C.E. Woolman principal founder of the company, leads movement to buy out Huff Daland Dusters and $10,000 in capital creates Delta Air Service, named for the Mississippi Delta region it primarily serves with plans for passenger air service routes across the South. Malcolm Biedenharn is one of the six co-founding investors in Delta Air Service. He was a Delta Vice President and member of the Board of Directors until his death in 1950.
Passenger air service begins in 1929 with Delta routes stretching from Dallas, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi via Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana. The initial passenger aircraft carried five passengers and a pilot.
1929-1930 era poster for Delta Air Service passenger flights at Chennault Aviation & Military History Museum, Monroe, Louisiana.
The inability of Delta Air Corporation to secure a U.S. mail contract resulted in the discontinuation of passenger service between 1930 and 1934. The company landed a U.S. mail contract in 1934 and resumed passenger air service. Delta Air Corporation was renamed Delta Air Lines in 1934 with headquarters in Monroe, Louisiana.
There is a humorous story told by a Mississippi comedian Jerry Clower (1926-98) about some New York City investors in Delta Air Lines who come to Monroe, Louisiana for the annual corporate meeting with plans to introduce some changes to the airline passenger service company.
Delta Air Lines annual stockholder’s meeting was held in Monroe, Louisiana every year from 1957 to 1997, with the exception of 1995 when it was in Atlanta prior to Olympics. In 1998 the meeting moved to New York City.
Biedenharn Museum & Gardens, Monroe, LA
Chennault Aviation & Military History Museum, Monroe, LA