The Sonora Aero Club & The Airships of the 1800s
Heavily Illustrated by Pete Navarro
(c) 2009 by Dennis Crenshaw
"Who knows, today I might even find a genuine antique piece
to sell in the shop.”
Fred Washington liked to tell people he was in the antique business. He operated out of two small shops near downtown Houston, Texas. One was The OK Trading Post, located on Washington Avenue, where he sold his antiques. The other was a warehouse and workshop around the corner on Barnes Street. The two buildings were just a block apart in the area of Houston referred to locally as the underbelly of the Heights. Fred spent most of his time in the workshop on Barnes restoring old furniture. However, on a bright sunny spring day in 1968 he left the shop early in the morning. His destination was a small private dump just north of White Oak Bayou. He often rooted around in the local dumps. Much of the furniture he repaired and resold he found discarded at one or another of the city’s dumps. And today he felt lucky. As he started towards his pickup his pace quickened.
Fig. 1.2. Mr. Fred Washington standing in front of his workshop where the Dellschau books were stored. Photo by P.G. Navarro
Who knows, today I might even find a genuine antique piece to sell in the shop
, he thought as he turned on the ignition of his truck. He hardly noticed the sights and sounds along the familiar route as he drove past the cheap restaurants, resale shops, used car lots, junkyards and old boarding houses that made up the neighborhood. Fred Washington was a rather serious person, highly intelligent, articulate and attentive to detail. That,
combined with a large dose of good old common horse-sense, made him a sharp businessman. He had only one real passion in life… finding treasures in the discards of a wasteful society.
Fred had been poking around the dump for over an hour. Just enough time for him to get used to the pungent sweet smell that all dumps seem to have in common. Someone had once told him it was the smell of decay. So far he hadn’t found anything worth carrying to his pickup. But he wasn’t discouraged. The day was young and he was outside. What more could a man want? He let his attention be drawn to two blackbirds that were screeching at each other as they fought over a scrap of red cloth
. Just like humans
, he thought, shaking his head in amusement…
fighting over nothing.
He reached up, took his hat off and used it to shade his eyes. With his other hand he took an oversized handkerchief out of his pocket, shook it once, then reached up and wiped the beads of sweat off his forehead. He noticed a large trash truck backing up fifty yards away. He could hear the big hydraulics whining as they lifted the heavy steel box high into the air. As gravity and momentum began to move the load of refuse down and out of the dump-bed he noticed several oversize scrapbooks slide off the top of the load. A few pages had come lose from their bindings and were fluttering to the ground. Even
from fifty feet away he could see the loose pages contained colorful drawings of some kind. His curiosity was aroused. As he worked his way across the dump trying to get to the books he noticed that another scavenger, like himself, had already reached the fresh load of refuse and was busy gathering up the books that had sparked his interest. By the time he reached the spot the other man had already carried the books to a beat-up car parked nearby. Fred reached him just as he was placing the last of them in the trunk.
“What did you find over there, Brother?” Fred asked.
“Don’t know. They look like old coloring books to me.” The other man frowned, as Fred stooped over the open trunk to get a closer look.
“Mind if I look at them?“ Without an answer he was already reaching into the man’s trunk and was flipping pages.
“Guess not,” the man mumbled as he begrudgingly accepted the situation.
After looking at a couple of pages of what looked to him like fanciful drawings of some type of hot air balloons Fred had a gut feeling that this was something that could be worth money to someone. Maybe a lot of money.
“What you want for them?” Fred asked.
“Hell, I don’t know. I just found them, haven’t had time to think about it yet.”
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks for them,” Fred said, as he reached into his wallet and pulled out five twenties. The man stared at the money for a minute. “You want them that bad… sold. I’ll even help you load them into your truck. You can have those, too,” the scavenger said, pointing towards a cardboard box full of old papers. “That box came down with the old books.”
Without another word the man took the money from Fred’s hand, loaded his arms with about half of the large, heavy books and headed towards Fred’s pickup truck. Fred looked at the box and wondered what kind of papers might be in it.
, he thought,
I paid for it, I might as well take it, too. I’ll find out later what’s in the box.
So without even opening the flaps, he placed the box on the stack of remaining books, wrapped his arms around the awkward load, and followed the other man over to his truck.
As Fred left the dump he glanced over at the stack of old books and the cardboard box on the seat in the cab beside him. He could just make out an old envelope hanging out of the cardboard box.
Looks like a utility bill to me,
he thought. He was beginning to wonder if he’d gone crazy. A hundred bucks for a bunch of old decaying drawings of hot air balloons and a cardboard box full of someone’s old utility bills. And his own electric bills not even paid yet
… I am crazy
, he thought as he pulled out of the dumpsite and joined the midmorning traffic.
Upon arriving back at his shop Fred went in and cleared a place on a small out-of-the way workbench. Then he returned to the truck and in two trips carried the heavy books and box of papers inside. He stacked his find on top of the table then covered them with an old paint-stained tarp. He figured he’d take his time later and make a thorough study of what he had bought. The first chance he had he started looking methodically through the books and the contents of the box. The books were actually a series of drawings that had been bound together into book form. The binding materials were unique, using string, glue and newspaper stock. The artist’s name, C. A. A. Dellschau, was included in every drawing. In looking through the old letters, newspaper clippings and papers in the cardboard box he noticed that the name Dellschau was on many of them. But most of the papers were old receipts, business letters and envelopes containing the name and address of Selzig’s Saddlery Store in downtown Houston. There were also some receipts for purchases made at department or millinery stores. Most of these contained the names and addresses of two women. With this information in hand he made a brief effort at trying to find out what he could about the origin of the books, and who their previous owner might have been. No one he contacted appeared to have any interest in the artwork or to know anything about Dellschau, the artist. His own interest dwindled. In time Fred needed the workbench for another project. He placed the old books under a pile of scrap carpet remnants and covered the whole pile with a large canvas. There they remained, undisturbed
for a year.
It was in the early spring of 1969 when three college students, two boys and a girl, showed up at Fred’s workshop. They were from nearby St. Thomas University. The two young men hung back and looked on awkwardly as their female companion approached Fred.
“Sir, my name is Mary Jane… Mary Jane Victor. We just left your store over on Washington Street. The man there told us you might be able to help us. He told us you have lots of stuff in your warehouse, and we were wondering if you might have anything that has to do with flight? You know, stuffed birds, old airplane models. Stuff like that.”
Fred’s eyes widened at the mention of things that fly. His mind instantly turned to the strange books he had bought the year before.
“Why you want to know?” Fred asked her, his curiosity aroused.
The young girl continued to be the spokesperson. “We’re putting on an exhibition at our school. We want to exhibit anything that has to do with flight."
Fig 1.3. One of Dellschau’s mysterious books laying open in Mr. Washington’s shop. Photo by P. G. Navarro
“Step back here.” He motioned for the three young people to follow him back into the gloomy paint-thick smell of the interior of his workshop. “ I might have something that’s just what you kids are looking for.”
With the young people looking on he began to forage through a pile of old carpet remnants and boxes full of unidentifiable junk. Finally he removed two old ragged looking books from the pile.
As the three students crowded around and started looking through the pages of the strange books they grew more and more excited. What they saw
were page after page of odd looking colorful drawings of what appeared to be flying machines. But flying machines like none they had ever seen during their study of the history of flight.
“Mr. Washington, would you donate these books for our display?” The young spokeswoman asked.
Fred realized that this just might be what those old drawings needed, exposure. If the right people saw the display he might be able to sell some of them and realize a good profit. He’d already decided the odd books had to be valuable. At any rate, it was better for interested people to see Dellschau’s artwork than for it to be hidden away under a bunch of junk in his workshop.
“Tell you what,” Fred said, “I’m not gonna give them to you. But I will loan you a couple for your exhibit.”
Fig. 1.4. Dellschau Aero drawings on display at St. Thomas University. Photo by P. G. Navarro.
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