Heart of Louisiana: Small town plays big role for major airline

When the cotton fields of the south were being ravaged by the boll weevil in the 1920's, Louisiana delta farm lands were ground zero in the battle to get rid of the pests. Scientists made history with the advent of the crop duster, and that success at a small Louisiana airport evolved into the world largest airline.

The crop dusters have been flying out of the tiny airstrip in Tallulah since the 1920's; probably longer than almost any place in the country. The northeast Louisiana cotton field is where they figured out how to spray pesticides from the air, replacing the slow and difficult task of doing it by hand on the ground. The pioneering work was done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as it waged war on the boll weevil, which was devastating the cotton fields.

Freddy Gaumnitz now owns the old airport. His father began flying crop dusters here after World War II. Today, the flying has been passed on to third generation son John Robert.

"They took old Air Force planes, brought them into this spot right here and along with the USDA they started testing the airplane dusting of cotton," Gaumnitz said.

After 18 years in the cockpit, John Robert says he still enjoys flying.

"The first two loads in the morning and the last two loads in the afternoon are the best. Nice and calm and usually it's cooled off some. So it's perfect flying, everything is still," John Robert says.

His plane dives close to the ground and skims over the fields and the treetops. It's a pattern that repeats over and over, guided by a GPS system mounted in front of the windshield.

"You learn where every single thing to his is and it's dangerous. The cell phone towers are what's popping up everywhere now," said John Robert Gaumnitz.

Just six years after the crop dusters began flying out of the airport in Tallulah, a farm agent with LSU named C. E. Woolman decided to start carrying passengers in the planes. And that was the beginning of Delta Airlines.

"They started hauling a few passengers and I guess they saw enough into the future to see that there was going to be a need for moving people from place to place and it just evolved from there. It turned into quite a business," Freddy Gaumnitz recalled.

With its headquarters in nearby Monroe, Delta's first flights traveled from Dallas to Monroe to Jackson, Mississippi.

Former pilot John Earl Martin says Tullulah and the airstrip get a lot of credit for the creation of Delta airlines.

"I'm selfish enough to think they get all of it," he said.

Martin crop dusted at Tallulah for 37 years. Now, he runs a small museum which shows off his town's aviation history.

"I'm not saying this would not have eventually happened, but we were the ones who were lucky enough to do it," Martin said.

Delta moved its operations to Atlanta in the 1940's, and is now the world's largest airline. But the crop dusters still zoom through the skies above the flat delta farmland.

"It's a lot of tedious work. It's fun and it's rewarding, especially when you think you've aided a farmer in making a good crop," Freddy Gaumnitz said.

And some of the planes are still piloted by the descendants of those aviation pioneers.

The original airport terminal in Tallulah is now a national historic landmark.

The building is in poor condition and is listed as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state. For more information go to http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lamadiso/articles/agaviation.htm or http://www.deltamuseum.org/M_Education_DeltaHistory_Fact