Georgia's remarkable economic progress in the late twentieth century started with the influx of federal dollars for welfare and defense in the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidential era (1933-45).
How Marietta Won the Bell Plant
The decision to place Bell Bomber in Marietta was the result of fortuitous circumstances and a generation of dynamic local leaders determined to bring their community out of the Great Depression. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Roosevelt
Based in Buffalo, New York, the Bell Aircraft Corporation had only about 1,000 employees when the United States entered World War II. Founded by Lawrence D. Bell in 1935, the company had recently won a military contract for the single-engine P-39 Airacobra pursuit plane. About two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Bell
Local boosters and a native general played key roles in persuading the U.S. Army to choose Cobb County over other potential sites in the Atlanta area. General Lucius D. Clay was the son of Alexander Stephens Clay of Marietta, a U.S. senator from 1897 to 1910. In September 1940 President Roosevelt tapped General Clay to head an emergency airport-construction program, under the Civil Aeronautics Administration, to prepare the country for war. Over the next fifteen months Clay helped initiate the construction of some 450 airstrips, including Rickenbacker Field in Marietta.
Envisioned locally as a commercial airport, Rickenbacker Field clearly had military potential. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Cobb County officials began lobbying for the Bell plant. By that time Clay had become the director of materiel for the U.S. War Department, with considerable influence over military contracts. His recommendation of Marietta helped clinch the deal, and on February 19, 1942, the War Department announced that Marietta had been selected.
Impact of Bell Bomber
By the war's end, the War Department had put $73 million into the plant, which was originally estimated as a $15 million project. In May 1943 the Army Air Corps accepted title to Rickenbacker Field and converted it into an installation that would be named Dobbins Air Force Base (later Dobbins Air Reserve Base) in 1950 to honor Captain Charles M. Dobbins, a Mariettan whose plane was shot down near Sicily during the war. Atlanta-based Robert and Company designed and managed the construction of the aircraft plant. The main B-1 assembly building covered more than 3.2 million square feet and took thirteen months to finish. Including the B-2 administration building and various other structures, the total project encompassed almost 4.2 million square feet, making it the largest business facility ever constructed in the Deep South.
In its brief history the plant had four general managers. The first three, Captain Harry E. Collins, Omer Woodson, and Carl Cover,
Bell Bomber reached its peak employment of 28,158 workers in February 1945. About nine in ten employees were southerners,
By mid-1945 the plant began scaling back production and workers in preparation for the end of the war. Shortly after the Japanese surrendered, the government canceled the B-29 contract. By the end of September the Georgia Division was down to a few thousand workers.
The local economy slowed slightly after the plant closed, but Marietta avoided serious unemployment, and the percentage of occupied houses and apartments remained high. The government used the massive B-1 building to store abandoned machine tools,
Donald J. Norton, Larry: A Biography of Lawrence D. Bell (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981).
Philip Scranton, ed., The Second Wave: Southern Industrialization from the 1940s to the 1970s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001).
Thomas A. Scott, Kennesaw State University
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