MARIETTA, GA. -- What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Leaning Tower is to Pisa, the Big Chicken is to Marietta, as officials of neighboring Smyrna have learned. When word leaked out this spring that Smyrna had designs on the regional landmark, Mariettans rose in protest -- some of it deadly serious, but most of it tongue in beak. The Big Chicken is five stories tall, made of beige-and-brown sheet metal and was built in 1963 at the intersection of Roswell Street and Highway 41, known then as "The Four-Lane" because it was the first four-lane highway in Georgia and the main road connecting Marietta with Atlanta, 18 miles to the southeast. The chicken was designed by restaurateur S.R. "Tubby" Davis and a Georgia Tech architecture student whose name has gone unrecorded to advertise "Johnny Reb's Chick, Chuck and Shake," then a new drive-in chicken and hamburger restaurant. It became so dominant a part of the landscape that residents and merchants quickly adopted it as the area's most visible landmark and the simplest way to give directions. In 1974, Kentucky Fried Chicken leased the restaurant, which became the company's biggest-volume franchise until Interstate 75 diverted travelers from Highway 41 in December 1976. Designed to withstand 100 mph winds, with movable eyes, beak and comb, the chicken was a breathtaking sight when working, said Bill Kinney, senior editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. "If you think that wasn't something, to ride out on a moonlit night and look up at the Big Chicken's eyes rolling around, I mean that was something," he said. Cobb County was mostly farm land then. As growth spiraled in the 1970s, the chicken took on added significance as a marker separating old-line Marietta from the Yankee newcomers of East Cobb. "What that chicken really does is it divides Cobb County," said Kinney, 65, a newspaperman in the area for nearly 50 years. "If you're traveling north and you go east at the Big Chicken, it's like a different world. Everybody drives BMWs and Mercedes and votes Republican, and they have small dogs. They're all from the East Coast. "To the west of the Big Chicken is Marietta, the county seat, which has always been a Democratic stronghold. I've heard folks from East Cobb say they've never even been to Marietta." The chicken also has stood as a homely symbol of continuity throughout the nearly 20-year maelstrom of rapid development and constant construction that once made Cobb the second fastest-growing county in the nation. War clouds gathered over Marietta and Smyrna in March when Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to persuade Smyrna officials to annex land for a new restaurant. According to Barbara Patterson, wife of Smyrna City Administrator John Patterson, her husband was only joking when the franchise's representatives asked what they could do to comply with Smyrna's annexation requirements. "Well, you could build us a big chicken like they have over in Marietta," Patterson told his wife he suggested. Apparently taken aback, the representatives said they were not allowed to build anything but the standard Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant design. But a month later, they returned and, noting that their lease on the Marietta establishment would expire in 1993 and that the property was tied up in probate court, they offered to move the Big Chicken from Marietta to Smyrna. "Poultry in Motion!" cackled a front-page headline in the Atlanta Constitution. And, in no time, the local news media were awash in barnyard metaphors. It was no laughing matter to citizens of Marietta, Mayor Vickie Chastain said. Her only opponent in 1985 was a Republican dressed in a chicken suit, and last year he appeared on an early-morning radio talk show broadcast from a bucket truck perched close to the beak of the Big Chicken. That night, the television news coverage was full of statements by outraged Big Chicken lovers, Chastain said. "One guy said, 'I couldn't find my way home without the Big Chicken' and, when the reporter asked, 'Would you fight for the Big Chicken?' the man said, 'I'd give my life for it,' " Chastain recounted. Freckle-nosed Charity Bryan, 14, who is to enter Marietta High School this fall, said the threat of losing the Big Chicken made people realize how much they would miss it. "There was a big to-do because they really cared about it; it really mattered," she said. "You just don't move our landmark. The Big Chicken is something everybody kinda grows up with. When you say, 'Meet me at the Big Chicken,' there's no mixup. No one says, 'Which one?' " The chicken dispute was quickly laid to rest, and Chastain presented Max Bacon, her counterpart in Smyrna, with a handmade plaque reading, "The Big Chicken can't be moved, no matter what they say. Its beak no longer moves, an egg she will not lay. If Smyrna wants a chicken, we'll help you raise your own, feed it mash and scratch and all our old cornpone." Chastain, who is retiring from office later this year, confessed mixed feelings about the big bird. "Part of me says, 'Look at it, it's big and funny-looking.' But, then, it is a landmark. Whether or not we chose it, it chose us, and it's here to stay."