Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club

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.

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Cynthia Greenwood