Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club

A tale of UFOs, art collectors and the shadows of history

Often the drawings show the heroic Peter Mennis, pilot of the Aero Goose and creator of the near-magical suppe. According to Dellschau's notebooks, Mennis died in the 1860s, and without his secret formula, the club could fly no longer and was forced to disband. In picture after picture, Dellschau laments Mennis's demise. "Peter Mennis you are not forgotten," he writes in one; in another, "no more suppe."

Could such wonders have happened? It's a difficult question. If the club were as secretive as Dellschau indicates, the California desert offered privacy. Sonora was a Gold Rush boomtown, six miles south of Columbia, now the site of the Columbia Airport. The airport's land is isolated and flat -- ideal for testing aircraft -- and is surrounded by mostly hilly terrain.

Dellschau's drawings show equipment that would have been revolutionary for the 1850s: gliding keels, revolving generators powered by a chemical reaction, bendable rubber joints, revolving shear blades, even a retractable landing gear. It was heady stuff, highly advanced given the state of technology (the Wright Brothers didn't make their famous flight until 1903). But half a century later, when the old man actually made the drawings, many of those technologies had grown closer to reality.

The historical record of Dellschau picks up again in 1861. A certificate from that year shows that Dellschau married Antonia Hilt, a widow with a four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. It's not clear where Dellschau met and married her or where the family first lived together.

In 1865, they were living in Richmond, Texas, a haven for newly arrived Germans and Czechs. That year, Dellschau signed an amnesty oath, swearing that as a former member of the Confederacy, he wouldn't oppose the U.S. laws that freed slaves. (W.M. Von-Maszewski, the Texas historian who translated Dellschau's journals, thinks he may have worked under the Confederates as a civilian.) According to that oath, Dellschau was a butcher. His height was five feet three inches; his hair, auburn; eyes, hazel; and complexion, fair. The one verifiable photo of Dellschau bears out that description and shows him to be a bit gruff and Teutonic, with a large, round forehead beneath a line of receding hair and with bushy eyebrows and a moustache that covers his mouth.

Dellschau's wife, Antonia, bore him three children. In 1877, tragedy struck: Antonia died, and their six-year-old son, Edward, died two weeks later. Census records show that Dellschau remained in Richmond for a while afterward with his daughter Bertha.

In 1889, the phone directory lists both Dellschau and Bertha in Houston, living with Dellschau's stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Anton Stelzig, a harness- and saddle-maker and the founder of the Western clothing store that still exists in Houston.

Sometime before 1892, Dellschau's daughter Bertha was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was institutionalized. By 1898, the sanatorium wrote Dellschau that she wouldn't live much longer.

For a few years after moving to Houston, Dellschau worked as a salesman and clerk for Stelzig's saddlery and harness business on Main Street, between Congress and Franklin. But the aging butcher -- in his late 50s when he moved to Houston -- never mastered work in a service industry. "They sent him home," says Leo Stelzig Jr., Anton's grandson. "He was kind of abrupt and wasn't smooth with the customers."

It was then that Dellschau began to fill his days by filling his notebooks. He wrote a two-part, 200-page journal and produced roughly 5,000 ink-and-watercolor drawings before his death in 1923. By Steen's calculation, that works out to the furious rate of a drawing every day or two. "He had something to say," Steen concludes. "The most important thing in his life was his work."

Leo Stelzig Jr. was two years old when Dellschau died and, as a boy, used to rummage through the attic looking for old letters whose stamps could grace his collection. In the process, he came across Dellschau's belongings and marveled at the bizarre aeros.

Dellschau's notebooks languished in the attic until sometime in the 1960s. According to Steen's search of public records, the fire department found the house a fire hazard and ordered that it be cleared of debris. A nurse who'd been hired to care for Anton Stelzig's two aging sisters attacked the job zealously and in the process consigned many of the Stelzigs' valuables to a trash heap on the curb. Among the losses were old World War I uniforms, some very old records and -- worst of all -- Dellschau's notebooks. Now 74, Leo Stelzig shakes his head sadly as he recounts the nurse's words: "I took care of that mess and cleaned it all up."

At the Washington Street dump, an unidentified trash man sold the notebooks to junk man Fred Washington for $100. Washington took them to his O.K. Trading Center on Washington Avenue, where they lay stacked on the floor, covered with a tarp because the building's roof leaked.

In 1969, Mary Jane Victor was an art history student at the University of St. Thomas -- and a regular patron of the O.K. Trading Center. She remembers being amazed to come across the scrapbooks.

At the university art department, Victor was working for art patron Dominique de Menil, a Schlumberger heiress famous for her eye for surrealists and the primitive art that inspired them. Victor promptly told de Menil about her find and put her in touch with the junk dealer. Soon after, the heiress paid Washington $1,500 for four of the earliest notebooks.

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