This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Roots: From Crop Duster to Airline; The Origins of Delta Air Lines to World War II




Hoogerwerf, James

Type of Degree





Delta Air Lines (Delta) is one of the great surviving legacy airlines of the first century of flight. In the annals of American aviation history its origins are unique. Delta’s beginning can be traced to the arrival of the boll weevil from Mexico into Texas in 1892. Unlike other national airlines that were nurtured on mail subsidies, Delta evolved from experiments using airplanes to counter the cotton weevil scourge from the air. The iconic book on the subject is Delta: The History of an Airline authored by two eminent Auburn University history professors, W. David Lewis and Wesley Phillips Newton. This dissertation explores more closely the circumstances and people involved in Delta’s early years up to World War II. It is chronologically organized and written in a narrative style. It argues Delta’s development was the result of a decades-long incremental and evolutionary process and not the calculated result of a grand design or the special insight of any one person. Various individuals, influenced by diverse cultural, political, and economic factors, interacted to frame the outcome. The socio-technological system that is Delta today originated from a complex set of seemingly unrelated circumstances. The slightest variation might have modified, sidetracked, or even terminated the process. The search for primary source material determined the methodology undertaken for this study. The investigation led to each of the cities where Delta had an early connection and to libraries and repositories across the United States and in South iv America. A variety of diverse primary source materials, including government publications, newspaper articles, interviews, library subject files, and archival repositories, was accessed. Much of this information was unavailable to historians Lewis and Newton. This study explains how in its early years a large American legacy airline evolved from a small crop dusting company chartered to help save cotton from the boll weevil infestation in the southern United States. More Broadly, it contributes to the understanding of the origins of commercial aviation in the United States and the world.