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

But, at the end of the day, the club's historicity is thin at best. Peter Navarro, a graphic designer who purchased Dellschau's work after its landfill rescue (and later devoted decades of his life to studying and decodings the texts), wrote, "Many of the newsworthy events that Dellschau claimed to have happened while he was there have been verified. But those events dealing with the activities of the Aero Club have not." He concluded, "A personal search of records and cemeteries . . . have turned up nothing that would prove the members of the Aero Club ever existed." And though Baker-White can find some names in later California records, others crop up in turn-of-the-century Houston, where Dellschau lived out his later years and created his books.

All the signs seem to indicate that Dellschau's Sonora Aero Club is not exactly an accurate recounting of fact. But even as a fabrication, Dellschau's dreams represent a historical truth: This was a country seized with a dream of flight.


Charles Dellschau, courtesy of Stephen Romano

If Dellschau did go to California, which it seems that he did, it makes sense that he would have arrived there fantasizing about air travel: The journey westward was full of hardship -- whether over land across the American continent or by boat around Cape Horn -- many in America wanted to be in California without ever having to go through the trouble of getting there. Rufus Porter, the founder of Scientific American, published a pamphlet in 1849 entitled Aerial Navigation: The Practicability of Travelling Pleasantly and Safely from New York to California in Three Days.

indianorwhitemansstares.jpgCharles A.A. Dellschau (American, b. Prussia, 1830 - 1923), detail. Press Bloom, A Flying Machine that Folds its Wing, 1912. Mixed media. San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Annual Gift Appeal. Full image available here.

"Think about the fear that you would have going across this huge country, and encountering all kinds of hazards, and just being afraid," Baker-White remarked, "and how easy it would seem to just go across in a balloon." Dellschau himself expresses this desire, laden with the prejudices and racial tensions of the time, writing in the border of one plate that "the main Object [was] to be able to cross the plains -- and avoid Indian -- or White mans stares."

Drinking clubs, too, were common (one founded at that time -- E Clampus Vitus -- still exists). The whole idea that during the Gold Rush, a group of men would have gathered weekly to drink while concocting designs for balloons, dirigibles, and other flight craft is "totally plausible," according to Baker-White. It's more the specifics than the notion of the Sonora Aero Club that are historically suspect.

All of this was occurring during a time when people the world over -- not just westward-bound gold diggers -- could feel themselves on the cusp of an airborne age. Europeans of the 18th century were going absolutely nuts over air balloons, something Dellschau may have picked up during his formative years in Germany. But flight had obsessed humans for far longer. Crouch put it beautifully:

Flight was, after all, the great dream of the ages. It may have been the one technological dream that's innate in human beings -- because of the birds, because other creatures fly and we don't. It becomes -- the dream of flight becomes -- psychologically embedded in us, connected to those human desires to escape, to soar over obstacles -- whether geographic or obstacles in life.

That psychological landscape was in place and then, all of the sudden, in the late 18th century and into the 19th, with the advent of balloons, advances in mechanical engineering, and the harnessing of electricity, that long-held dream became a real possibility. "You have these waves of just raw enthusiasm sweeping through society," Crouch muses. He imagines a sort of collective realization, a moment when everyone took it all in, looked at one another, and exclaimed, "Gosh, you know, now we can actually do this!"

It is that air of possibility, that enthusiasm for human ability, that swells the pages of Dellschau's books. His fantasies weren't unhinged from reality, they were layered on top of it -- literally, in certain cases, as he painted the story of his Sonora Aero Club over the press blooms he pasted to the page, or in others less literally, as when he dreamt up what members of the club would have made of the new age of flight ("How would our members laugh, over the deeds of today's Aeronauts," he wrote on Plate 1856). This may be a feast of the imagination, but it had its inspiration in the veritable progress of the century.


Charles Dellschau, courtesy of Stephen Romano

* * *

Should Dellschau have wanted to improve on reality, no one could have blamed him. Following his time in California, he returned to Texas, where, as judged by all available evidence, his life was a hard one. He married a widow named Antonia Helt, which made him a stepfather to her daughter Elizabeth. He and Antonia soon had three children.

But in 1877 his life "began to unravel," Baker-White writes. He lost both his wife and son within a two-week period, possibly due to yellow fever which swept through the swamps of Texas around that time. He soon remarried, but his second wife passed away within a year. His daughter Mary "also disappears from historic records around this time and probably died."

In 1887 Dellschau moved in with his stepdaughter Elizabeth and her husband Anton Stelzig, the owner of a saddlery, at their home in Houston. He seems to have moved again, around 1890, to Austin in order to be near his one remaining blood relative, his daughter Bertha who was hospitalized there with tuberculosis. She died six years later -- the same year that Anton, at the age of 43, also passed away. Dellschau was, Baker-White writes, "63 years old and had lost two wives, three children, and a son-in-law. He moved in with his widowed stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and her eight children, including an infant and a toddler." It is in that house where, in 1898, Dellschau set to working on his memoirs and scrapbooks, and where, in 1923, he died, and where, in the 1960s, a chance fire would shove his art into the wider world.

And art it is. Whatever their historical value, Dellschau's works are treasures for their aesthetic sensibility. He's given us a visual expression of a time when the world realized that man might soon ascend beyond the terrestrial domain. "Renaissance paintings show saints and angels floating or flying around amid clouds in the same skies where Dellschau's angelic Aeros are suspended light as a feather," the art critic McEvilley writes.

Man was going up, and everyone felt it. As French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, "Of all the metaphors, only those pertaining to height, ascent, depth, descent and fall are axiomatic. Nothing can explain them but they can explain everything."

We may never know whether the members of the Sonora Aero Club even tried to take to the skies over California. That is a question that, as McEvilley puts it, "is one of many questions that just have to be lived with as questions." But if they didn't fly in history, they certainly flew alongside it, a full-fledged society that once lived and thrived in the mind of Charles August Albert Dellschau.

Dellschau's work will be on view at Cavin Morris Gallery in May in an exhibition entitled "Restless II" and at the Pulse New York Art Fair May 9-12. A solo exhibition will appear at Intuit - The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago in September 2013. The monograph "Charles Dellschau," published by Marquand books and distributed by DAP Artbooks, will be available later this month.

Thanks to John Overholt for the original pointer and to Stephen Romano for providing the art that appears in this post.

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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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