Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club

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

"Dellschau for her was an eccentric," recalls Steen. "She had a wonderful affinity for eccentrics." Half joking, she told Steen she was especially drawn to the coded phrase "DM=X" scrawled across the top of many drawings. She thought DM stood for "Dominique de Menil." And the rest somehow equaled her own death.

Soon after de Menil acquired the notebooks, she exhibited some of their leaves in "Flight," a University of St. Thomas show on the subject. And it was there that Pete Navarro, one of the most dogged investigators of Dellschau's mysteries, first encountered the aeros.

Navarro, a Houston commercial artist, was intrigued by UFOs, especially by a mysterious rash of airship sightings near the turn of the century, not long before Dellschau began his drawings. Navarro read about the St. Thomas exhibition one morning at the breakfast table. And when he saw Dellschau's drawings, he felt there had to be a connection to the sightings.

Ufologists believe that between November 1896 and April 1897, thousands of Americans in 18 states between California and Indiana saw a curious dirigible-like flying machine floating eastward. No physical evidence of a ship or a designer has ever surfaced, but newspapers such as the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Daily Express and Chicago Tribune devoted space to the sightings. In this century, authors Daniel Cohen and William Chariton have published books on the subject.

The mysterious craft was first spotted on November 17, 1896, by R.L. Lowery, near a brewery in Sacramento, California. According to various newspaper reports, the craft seemed to travel eastward. In spring, it was spotted in Texas.

At 1:16 a.m. on April 17, 1897, the Reverend J.W. Smith saw what he thought was a shooting star in the night sky of Childress, Texas, then decided it was really a flying machine. Eventually he recognized it as the much-discussed cigar-shaped airship.

Four days after Smith's UFO sighting, the Houston Daily Post gave a lengthy account of his and other spottings of the same airship, a 30-foot-long skiff-shaped contraption outfitted with revolving wheels and sails.

Jim Nelson, a farmer from Atlanta, Texas, recalled glimmers of red, green and blue lights and "a glaring gleam of white light" that shone directly in front of the airship. In Belton, a crowd witnessed the same vehicle the next night. They claimed its pilots spoke loudly as they flew overhead, but the ship's velocity was so great, their words were lost in the wind.

According to other newspaper accounts, witnesses managed to talk with the pilots. Sometimes townspeople even came upon the crew members, who were apparently making repairs to their marvelous machine and were willing to chat.

In 1972, three years after de Menil bought her four notebooks, Pete Navarro learned that more Dellschau notebooks were collecting dust at Washington's junk shop. Nobody wanted them, so Navarro gave the dealer $65 for one book. Hooked by what he saw, he returned and offered $500 more for the remaining seven.

Navarro tried to sell four of the notebooks to de Menil; she chose not to buy them -- perhaps because she liked the work in her own notebooks better. De Menil owned some of Dellschau's earliest notebooks and believed that they included his best work. As the artist aged, his works grew looser, more expressionistic; de Menil seems to have preferred his earlier precision.

But for Navarro, the notebooks weren't about artistic quality; they were pieces of a historical puzzle. He visited Helen and Tommy Britton, cousins of Leo Jr. Helen promised she'd try to find more books and pictures of Dellschau that were hidden around the family's old house, but she died before she could locate anything. Navarro also talked to Tommy Britton, who was a preteen when Dellschau died. Now in his 80s, he may be the last living relative who remembers Dellschau. (Britton couldn't be reached for this story.)

After culling a vast number of such press clippings, Navarro created an elaborate map of every Texas sighting and wrote several papers. Some are on file at the Houston Public Library's Texas archive; others are available on the Internet at www.keelynet.com. In "The Mysterious Mr. Wilson and the Books of Dellschau," co-written with UFO enthusiast Jimmy Ward, Navarro posits a connection between Dellschau's clandestine society and a mysterious pilot named Hiram Wilson mentioned in an article by the San Antonio Daily Express on April 26, 1897, about a local airship sighting. The article identifies the airship's occupants as Wilson, from Goshen, New York; his father, Willard H. Wilson, assistant master mechanic of the New York Central Railroad; and their co-pilot C.J. Walsh, an electrical engineer from San Francisco.

In that story, Hiram Wilson divulged to witnesses that his airship design came from an uncle. Navarro believes that the uncle could have been another Wilson -- the Sonora club member Tosh Wilson mentioned in one of Dellschau's watercolors. According to Navarro, Dellschau's coded messages say that Tosh searched seven years to rediscover suppe, the lost fuel, and finally succeeded.

Navarro has found no trace of a Hiram Wilson residing in Goshen. But he does offer evidence of his presence at 1897 airship sightings in Greenville, Texas (on April 16); near Lake Charles, Louisiana (on April 19); near Beaumont, Texas (April 19); Uvalde, Texas (April 20); Lacoste, Texas (April 24); and Eagle Pass, Texas (April 24).

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