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Archives exhibit shows history of Atlanta's airport

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wasn't always the world's busiest airport. Once upon a time, it wasn't even an airport at all, said Grant Wainscott, executive director and chief curator of the National Museum of Commercial Aviation.

The land was originally a racetrack, and was bought by the City of Atlanta, in 1925, which turned it into an airfield, Wainscott said. "This is the world's busiest airport, and it is such a tremendous economic engine for the entire Southeastern United States," he said.

Wainscott said the museum collaborated with the National Archives at Atlanta to create a traveling exhibit of Hartsfield-Jackson's growth and expansion, entitled, "Creating the World's Busiest Airport: Three Atlanta Legacies and Their Impact on the Airport." It opened to the public on Tuesday. "We are just trying to share how the world's busiest airport came about," he said.

The exhibit, housed in a 20-foot-by-20-foot room, focuses on three individuals: Asa Griggs Candler, William Berry Hartsfield and Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr., and their impact on the growth of what is now the world's busiest airport.

Hartsfield and Jackson were Atlanta mayors who assisted in the airport's development and growth, and the airport is named after them, because of their contributions.

Wainscott said Asa Griggs Candler is known for his involvement with Coca-Cola, a world-known brand. Candler was fond of automobile racing, so in 1909 he bought 300 acres of land south of Atlanta, for $77,674, to create a race track, known as the Atlanta Speedway, or Atlanta Motordrome.

The racetrack was shut down, during its first season, because of poor attendance, but continued to operate by conducting events, including air shows and exhibition races, said Wainscott.

In 1925, Candler offered the racetrack to the City of Atlanta, rent free, for five years, with an option to buy the track for $100,000, if the city paid the taxes, according to Wainscott. The track was officially leased to Atlanta, on April 16, 1925, and eventually, on April 13, 1929, the city bought the land for $94,400.

Wainscott said the free exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8:30 a.m., to 5 p.m., at the Archives, at 5780 Jonesboro Road, in Morrow. It will be available until Aug. 31.

John Barson, a Federal Aviation Administration employee, said he liked the exhibit and will inform his FAA colleagues to come see it for themselves. "I think it is great," he said. "It shows how the airport and aviation evolved in Atlanta."

Ashley Judy, an archives technician at the National Archives at Atlanta, said she assisted the museum in the development and set-up of the exhibit. The Archives used census records and other documents –– including newspaper articles –– to provide background information on the airport and the three individuals who are the focus of the exhibit.

The museum provided items, such as vintage in-flight serving ware and uniforms from pilots, flight attendants and airplane mechanics, according to Wainscott. The items date from the 1940's, to the 1990's, he said.

"What the archives specializes in, and what the museum specializes in, is a perfect match," said Wainscott. "We have a lot of hard artifacts, objects. The archives has a tremendous amount of federal records, particularly this one ... We've not seen the airport history broken up this way before."

Other organizations, including the Delta Heritage Museum and the Atlanta History Center, generously lent items, such as a Rusco aero safety belt, circa the 1930's, and a 1996 Atlanta Olympic torch, said Judy.

Terry McGee, of Stockbridge, said he learned a lot about Hartsfield-Jackson's history through the exhibit. "The fact that Coca-Cola had an involvement [with the airport], which gave me an understanding, because I am not a native from Atlanta," said McGee.

According to Judy, William Berry Hartsfield served six terms as Atlanta mayor. Befor that, he was an alderman on the Atlanta Board of Aldermen ( now the City Council), in the 1920's, and was involved in the decisions that resulted in the birth of the city's airport. Hartsfield became chairman of Atlanta's Aviation Committee, and oversaw all of the activities on the airfield, said Judy.

On May 7, 1932, the then-Atlanta Municipal Airport opened its first terminal, with the assistance of a loan from American Airways, said Wainscott.

In 1937, Hartsfield became mayor of Atlanta, and his reign lasted until 1961, said Judy. Hartsfield oversaw improvements and renovations at the airport.

Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr., became the first African-American mayor of a major southern city in 1974, said Wainscott. The construction of the midfield terminal ran smoothly under his watch, and more minorities received municipal contracts for this enhancement, thanks to Jackson, said Wainscott.