Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club

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

In 1899, Charles Dellschau, a grouchy retired butcher, began to paint amazing airships. His intricate collages show shiplike decks supported by striped balloon pontoons; they show bright-colored helicopters and evil-looking striped dirigibles outfitted for war; they show crews of dapper little gentlemen accompanied by the occasional cat. Many pages are bedecked with little newspaper clippings about aviation, and text in his weird Germanic lettering celebrates the pure, unexcelled marvelousness of the flying machines.

Nearly a century later, folk-art collectors hold the works in high esteem. A page from Dellschau's notebooks can fetch as much as $15,000, a hefty price even in a booming market. A New York Times reviewer said that Dellschau possesses "a charming style that presages Monty Python"; the Village Voice called the works "sweetly bizarre."

It's hard to say what the old man would have made of such praise; he doesn't seem to have thought of himself as an artist. It's not clear even whether he intended the notebooks for anyone's eyes but his own. The drawings are crudely sewn together with shoelaces and thread, and newsprint is glued on the edge of each leaf as a spine. Watercolor airships occupy both sides of the pages.

Taken at face value, Dellschau's collages document the feats of the Sonora Aero Club, a secretive group dedicated to the creation of "aeros," or flying machines. In code, and bad spelling in both English and German, Dellschau recounted how, in his youth 50 years before, he and fellow club members gleefully ruled the skies of Gold Rush California, piloting fantastical airships of their own invention.

Perhaps the notebooks' tales were merely fictions, Dellschau's efforts to entertain himself. Perhaps the old man had grown a tad deranged. Or perhaps Dellschau was actually recounting the exploits of his youth, embellishing here and there, but remaining somewhat faithful to the facts. Oddly, that last supposition -- the strangest possibility of all -- seems the most likely. One line of thought even ties the Sonora club to a rash of UFOsightings.

But untangling Dellschau's tale is a complicated matter, one that involves penetrating many levels of secrecy, including that of the very people trying to solve his riddles.

The puzzle of Dellschau's aeros intrigues both art historians and UFO enthusiasts. Not surprising, most of the hard facts come from the art world.

Two years ago, William Steen, a mild-mannered frame designer at the Menil Collection, pieced together documents indicating the sketchy official outlines of Dellschau's life. Steen modestly claims to be no scholar, but his four-sheet chronology of Dellschau's life provides the most reliable biography available.

Steen found the immigration record that shows Dellschau's 1853 arrival in the United States. The young immigrant told officials that he was 25 years old; had been born in Brandenburg, Prussia; traveled here from Hamburg and listed his occupation as a farmer.

Steen uncovered Dellschau's letter of citizenship, which traces his whereabouts to Harris County in 1856 and Fort Bend County in 1860. Between those years, the historical documents are silent about Dellschau's whereabouts. And it's precisely during that gap that Dellschau claims the Sonora club's exploits took place. So far, Steen has not been able to locate documents showing that Dellschau even lived in California in the 1850s. Nor do there seem to be credible reports of unidentified flying objects in the area.

But where the historical records are silent, the artist's notebooks make noisy, extravagant claims. Dellschau represents himself as the club's draftsman and scribe, rather than as one of its inventors or fliers; he never draws himself aboard an aero. He illustrates a remarkable number of designs -- maybe as many as 100 -- for airships with names such as Aero Mio, Aero Trump, Aero Schnabel and Aero Mary. (There's even an Aero Jourdan.) All were powered by a secret formula that Dellschau called both "supe" and "suppe"; it could both negate gravity and drive the ships' wheels, side paddles and compressor motors.

One drawing tells the story of Adolf Goetz's Aero Goeit, recklessly commandeered by an unskilled pilot; the airship got tangled in a Sequoia tree, and the interloper died of a broken neck. Another cautionary tale involves Jacob Mischer, a pilot who went down in flames in the Aero Gander; Dellschau hints that he was sabotaged by other club members, who suspected him of using the aircraft to make money by hauling cargo.

But most of the airships' flights were safe -- and great fun. Dellschau depicts his aviators enjoying hot breakfasts, and delights in enumerating the ships' clever gadgets. He often bedecked his watercolor paintings with little press clippings -- from Scientific American, the Houston Chronicle and an unidentified German-language newspaper -- that recount air disasters; Dellschau called them "press blooms." Against paintings of the Sonora club's successes, the clippings seem intended as an ironic counterpoint.

Dellschau never seems to explain why the club worked so hard to protect its secrecy, but he shows the members going to great lengths to do so. By day, the Aero Goeit was disguised as a gypsy wagon, so it could travel open roads undetected. Dellschau writes that a club member was banned from developing a machine because he'd talked to outsiders. And of course, even years after the club disbanded, many of Dellschau's own comments are rendered in code. Apparently, whatever it was that he had to say was too private even for his own notebooks.

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.

"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).

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.

And in January, Steen plans a side trip to Sonora after retrieving some Menil-owned Picassos on loan in a San Francisco exhibit. He hopes to get a feel for the Gold Rush era and perhaps even to uncover traces of the club's members.

Recently he had Dellschau's journals translated from German into English. Their 200 pages feature stories about members of the Sonora Aero Club, with very few illustrations. In these tales, Dellschau mentions a boarding house, complete with bar and dining room, where he and club buddies stayed.

Something about the tales nags at Steen. "The more details I see about Dellschau, the more convinced I am that a great deal of it is highly possible," he says. "Even though it's fantastic, it's more than just fairy tales."

As for Pete Navarro, after trying to unravel the artist's secrets for 25 years, he still has the dreamy-eyed look of someone possessed by a riddle. Over the years, he's sold all his Dellschau notebooks because he needed the cash. Four went to the San Antonio Museum Association in 1972 and are shared between the Witte and San Antonio Museum of Art. Two years ago, Navarro sold his remaining four to the Ricco/Maresca Art Gallery in Manhattan.

Those notebooks hold the artist's late work, from 1919 to 1923. Gallery director Stephen Romano says he's sold more than ten pieces; Romano won't reveal the buyers' names but will say that a major law firm took three and that a stockbrocker, psychiatrist and film editor have each bought one. In just the last year, the selling price for a single Dellschau has jumped $3,000, from $12,000 to $15,000. Next year, the gallery plans to give the artist a one-man show.

But even at the gallery, the aeros' mysteries stubbornly refuse to yield to either commerce or art history. Two weeks ago, Romano received a call from a Houston UFO fan named Alexander who claims he's got Dellschau all figured out. Alexander, of course, refused to leave his phone number.

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