Charles A. A. Dellschau Dreams of Flying: The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed

In the 1960s, a house in Houston caught on fire. In the aftermath, a set of 12 scrapbooks were discovered. They depicted a society, the Sonora Aero Club, that had all but disappeared from history, if it was ever there at all.

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Charles Dellschau, courtesy of Stephen Romano

It was the time of Gold Rush, and people of every nationality were pouring into California in search of that earth that would make them rich.

The settlement of Sonora, about 130 miles east of San Francisco, was booming. It was there, in the saloon of one of the local boarding houses, that a group of men would get together every Friday night and talk of dreams. Well, just one dream, really: human flight.

They called themselves the Sonora Aero Club and, over time, they counted some 60 members, possibly many more. Their ranks included great characters, such as Peter Mennis, inventor of the Club's secret "Lifting Fluid," later described as "a rough Man, whit as kind a heart as to be found in verry few living beengs," despite being "adicted to strong drink" and "Flat brocke." The Aero Club's rules: Roughly once a quarter, each member had to stand before the gathered group and "thoroughly exercise their jaws" in telling how he would build an airship.

On one night in 1858, a man by the name of Gustav Freyer stood to present his invention: the Aero Guarda, an airship surrounded by a sort of hamster-wheel cage that would protect its passengers upon landfall. Freyer was a highly educated mechanic, and he waltzed up to the blackboard, took the chalk in hand, and began.

"Brothers," he said. "You all know I am not quite a professor." He looked at his fellow airship enthusiasts and continued: "I give you a nut to crack. My idea is to put a guard fence all around the machine to fall -- land -- easy and always safe, to keep some of you smarties from falling out." His contraption, he argued, would somersault upon hitting water, in such a way that the passengers would always "stay perpendicular, I mean head up on the floor of the hold." 

He drew a sketch on the board and declared his work done.

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Plate 2627 Guarda, August 21, 1912, 16 × 191⁄2 in. Photograph by Peggy Tenison, courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art

"Well," he concluded, "now some of you have to pay the treat for me. Tell ya the truth, I am busted and dry as a fish!" And they bought him a beer, lifted up their glasses, and toasted his good health.

Or perhaps they didn't. Perhaps Gustav Freyer never stood up among his comrades and proposed this ridiculous design. Perhaps there was no Gustav Freyer, no Friday nights at the saloon talking about flight, no clink of the glasses to celebrate a new-fangled airship design.

Perhaps the Sonora Aero Club never existed at all.

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Charles Dellschau, detail of Plate 4520. Full image here. Courtesy of Stephen Romano.
* * *

One hundred years later, a house in Houston, Texas, caught on fire. In the aftermath, a fire inspector instructed the family to get rid of some of the old, miraculously unscathed junk in the attic. The family complied, and everything was soon landfill-bound.

Among that debris: the 12 illustrated scrapbooks of one Charles August Albert Dellschau, German immigrant, supposed former Sonora Aero Club member. Created between 1908 and 1921, during Dellschau's retirement, the pages document his recollections of the machines, meetings, and men of the erstwhile Club.

"Dellschau's life-work was carried unceremoniously out into the light of day and literally left in a heap in the gutter," writes the late art critic Thomas McEvilley in a forthcoming volume about the artist.

But what could have been the artwork's death was its birth. As McEvilley puts it, "It was born into the gutter, you might say."

No one quite knows who rescued the books from their landfill fate, but soon they landed at Fred Washington's OK Trading Post. There they lay beneath some carpets, or maybe they were tarpaulins, until a student at a local university noticed them and brought them to the attention of a Houston art collector. By 1970, all 12 volumes had found more permanent homes. Dealers and historians eventually tracked down some additional Dellschau works, including a series of three journals called Recolections [sic], that also tell the story of the Sonora Aero Club and its inventions, with "ink drawings of fanciful airships that ... look for all the world as if they had flown off the pages of a Jules Verne novel," as flight historian Tom D. Crouch describes them.

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A print from Recolections second part, by Charles Dellschau, courtesy of Stephen Romano

All together, the shoestring-bound books contain some 2,000 pages, each a double-sided collage replete with calligraphy (often in a code that is still today only partially deciphered), drawings, and newspaper clippings. (Dellschau referred to the clippings as "press blooms," as though they were preserved flowers.) Each page -- or "plate," as Dellschau called them -- is dated and numbered, though the counting starts at number 1601. The estimated 10 volumes with the first 1,600 drawings are presumed lost or destroyed.

What are these scrapbooks? Are they an elaborate fantasy, spun out of the overactive imagination of an aging man? An outright delusion? Or are they earnest recollections of a lost time, a commemoration of the best years of a long, hard life?

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Charles Dellschau, courtesy of Stephen Romano

Tracy Baker-White, a historian and former curator at the San Antonio Museum of Art, has spent 14 years trying to answer these questions. "This club -- whether or not it actually happened -- we don't exactly know," she told me.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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