Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club

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

On April 28, the Galveston Daily News ran the headline "Airship Inventor Wilson." The article reported the inventor's encounter with one Captain Akers, a customs agent from Eagle Pass. Akers told the newspaper that Wilson "was a finely educated man about 24 years of age and seemed to have money with which to prosecute his investigations."

Based on such reports, Navarro proposes several scenarios. Perhaps the ship spotted near San Antonio had been flown by both Hiram and Willard Wilson. Or perhaps each pilot was steering his own airship across Texas. (This would explain why witnesses living a distance from one another offered simultaneous sightings of a man who identified himself as Wilson.) Navarro also speculates that one of these Wilsons was the same Tosh Wilson who had once belonged to the Sonora Aero Club. In that scenario, Tosh would have been reliving the glory days Dellschau could only illustrate in his notebooks.

To confirm the aero club's activities, Navarro has traveled to Sonora, talked to historians, searched the newspapers and even visited all the cemeteries. He found nothing. At times, he says, he couldn't help thinking that Dellschau made everything up.

Eventually, whether the Sonora club was a dream or real stopped mattering to Navarro. One day, he remembers being absorbed by a passage inscribed in one of the drawings: "Wonder Weaver, you will unriddle my writings." Navarro grew convinced that he and his brother, Rudy, "were weaving wonders." He says of Dellschau, "Maybe we had similar minds."

To crack Dellschau's 40-symbol code, Navarro enlisted the help of his brother, Rudy, and a couple who spoke German. He says the effort took only one month, but he won't release the key or a literal translation.

Navarro will talk only about the same phrase that enchanted de Menil: "DM=X." To Navarro, it stands for "NYMZA," an acronym for a secret society that controlled the Sonora club's doings. Based on Navarro's papers, some ufologists have speculated that NYMZA was controlled by -- what else? -- aliens; Navarro doesn't buy that theory.

Navarro explains that he's saving his best stuff for his collaborator, Dennis Crenshaw, who's writing a book called The Secrets of Dellschau. But Steen, at the Menil, isn't convinced that Navarro really deciphered the symbols. Steen once asked Navarro to translate the code; Navarro would tell him the meaning of only a couple of sentences.

Navarro is clearly torn between showing off and keeping secrets. He's compiled a voluminous scrapbook titled "Dellschau's Aeros." He proudly showed it to me. It's full of wild code translations and weird exegeses on the aeros and oddments that Dellschau just stuffed, unbound, in the notebooks: cartoons, a photocopy of Dellschau's marriage certificate, letters, maps, clippings and more clippings about all manner of harebrained inventions. There's even a picture of Otto, Bavaria's Mad Monarch.

But Navarro won't take his hands off the scrapbook. It, too, contains secrets, truths and tidbits linking Dellschau's club with the airship mystery. And for the moment, Navarro wants to keep the secrets for himself.

Slowly, though, other of Dellschau's secrets are revealing themselves. In early December, I asked Charles Stelzig -- Leo's son -- if his father had any of Dellschau's stuff. Charles turned up a boxful. He and I were the first to go through them since Leo Jr.'s stamp-collecting days. We found souvenir pictures of famous Germans; one shows Wilhelm, Kaiser of Deutschland.

And we found letters. Some, postmarked "Germany," are from a woman named Mary Sprengel. Another one is from Bertha Dellschau, written from the sanatorium. It begins, "Dear Papa."

The box also held two antique photo albums crumbling at the touch. Many of the photos show the logos of Berlin photographers. Are they from long-lost relatives writing to Charles, long after Prussia became part of united Germany? Another picture shows Mary Dellschau, the artist's daughter. And there are photos of young men, any one of whom could be Dellschau himself.

We found more. A yellowed legal certificate in German script bears the signatures of Friederike Wilhelmine and Heinrich Adolphe Dellschau, Charles's parents. In the middle of the page, they've written "Carl August Albert." Dated June 5, 1830, the document appears to be the artist's birth certificate.

Other discoveries offered keys to Dellschau's work. Two receipts, dated 1888 and 1889, showed Dellschau's payments to the New Orleans German Gazette. Until now, no one has known which German-language newspaper he used in his collages; surely this is it.

Last, more clippings surfaced. All are about inventions and cut in perfect squares like Dellschau's "press blooms." The most revealing boasts of "The Secret of the Keeley Motor." The article describes a force oddly reminiscent of suppe, Dellschau's miracle airship fuel.

The Menil Collection still holds the four notebooks de Menil bought and, in fact, showed them this fall, part of a show of the de Menils' collection of folk art. Most of the time, though, the books sit locked in a humidity-controlled room upstairs, individually tucked in flat boxes.

Museum authorities plan someday to hire a scholarly biographer to study Dellschau. In the meantime, William Steen continues to unearth new pieces of information. He's now examining clues about the lives of Dellschau's daughters, Bertha and Mary.

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