Recolections: The First Memoir of Charles A.A. Dellschau

By Tracy Baker White
Recolections, Aftermath, Geo Newells Idea Propper, 1898–1900, 7.5 × 9.25 in.

"In Evening Hours of Lisure Recolections of real and speculative Work of Friends in Time long gone by from a Friend yet here The are gone but their Work is not forgoten -- Charly"

Charles Dellschau’s illustrated memoirs provide a critical anchor for understanding the narrative content of his later work. They consist of three separate manuscripts—two volumes written in English and a third written in German. They are collections of idiosyncratic text, illustrations, and explanatory inscriptions that do not take the form of traditional sequential autobiographical narrative. One gleans the overall story through a collective interpretation of the varied visual and textual elements. 

Recolections, cover page, 1898–1900, 9.25 × 7.5 in.

The first volume, In Evening Hours of Lisure Recolections of real and speculative Work of Friends in Time long gone by from a Friend yet here The are gone but their Work is not forgoten Charly (cited hereafter as Recolections), consists of 108 double-sided pages bound with four brads. It begins with a flourish: the first page features a stack of elaborate cartouches containing quotations by Sonora Aero Club members, such as “I quit that Foolishness long agoe,” “They will loock on ous to be either Fools or Swindlers,” and “Man had to learn to Swim licke a Fish Why should he not learn to fly licke a Bird? Yes time will tell. I see no Fault in working out this Problem!!” A narrow margin on the left features tiny sketches of a man and an airship dangling by rope from a sliver of moon above birds, a creature astride a cliff, and fish, turtles, and eels beneath the sea, all against a pale blue wash.

The first half of Recollections consists of many pages of unembellished writings interspersed with pages with drawings of airships. The earliest pages that contain these drawings have lengthy passages of narrative text wrapping around the image. In later pages, as the project became more formalized, the texts are shorter and take on the form of annotations or explanatory lists of various parts. Dellschau usually named the club member who proposed the design. He also gave the vessels witty names like the the Multyplus and the Maybugg (by Michael Gorée), the Illusion (by George Newell), the Ride Me (by Professor Carolus), the Dove (by Heinrich Baumann), the Doobeline Balance Sphere (by Edward Hermsdorph), the Idea (by Otto Krause), the Saturnus (by Joe Cheney), the Hawk (by Christian Axel Von Roemeling and Karl Distell), the Trebla and the Augar Bohrer (by August Schoetler), and the Moveable (by Jonas Rockstroh). The Aeros are carefully rendered in sepia ink, with some details accented with delicate pale color washes. 

The main hero of the Sonora Aero Club is Peter Mennis—a rough-and-ready miner who created a balloon airship called the Goose. Mennis is often depicted in Dellschau’s illustrations wearing a hat and typical red wool flannel miner’s shirt and holding a pipe; sometimes there is a little dog at his side. Mennis is central to all of the activities of the club, and it was a Sunday afternoon ascent of the Goose that seems to have been the impetus for its formation:

Recolections, “Goose,” 1898–1900 7.5 × 9.25 in

"...Who was Peter Mennis? A California Miner, a German up in the fourthies, a plain yes a rough Man, whit as kind a hearth as to be found in verry few living beengs. a genius in getting Up useful contrivances, but adicted to strong drink, and for ever out of Means, “Flat brocke” as the word goes. Now to astonnish his Friends and Neighbours he was tinkering for some time on some contraption, borrowing nails, Screws, Wire and other articles to fix his Airostant Goose, and one Sunday afternoon, calling to witness the whole Neighbourhood on Woods Creek that he was going to Sonora and Columbia and inviting annyboddy to join in and go whit him. They all had a hearthy Laugh on Peter, and his ragged Mashine expressly as Peter had a Load, but no boddy ventured, and up he went, allone & how manny bigmouthed man oppened their Eyes, telling he would never come back allive, he break his Neck coming down if he ever could turn back. Yes and he did come back whitin ten feet of his Cabin, and as easy as a Bird alighting. Now he was a Wichman and some of the Biggmouths went out of his way, talking behind his Back. but others began to smell a Fortune to be able to get out of the Fool Duchman and in no greath while their was the Omibus Plaine Co. born to go it on a large Scale, and fleece Peter. Yes the build three fine Airomnibusses under Guidans of Mr Dr Michael Gorée a friend of Peter Mennis, and a man that know it all, and a heap more, as Peter himself, but when all was ready they would not rise and as their Companies Pocket books was closed to pay Peters Claim he stnd by and had a horslaugh at the man that where to get rich of Peters Invention. A thing or two that he kept to him Self and neither Dr M Gorée nor his hungry Money loaners could solve. Yes they bulldosed Peter, they called Dr Gorée a humbug and as buldosing would not go whit Peter, they landed him after while in the Insane Assylum, “as i Understand” but their Omnibusses went to old Iron and Tattess, and their Fortunes never realised. but as some things cant never come to rest Severall other genial man toock up Peters Invention again and worked the Problem on and off, the vissible Points of Peters “Goose” and Still others Claim all their Own Self made Ideas. but as Yet no Baddy has achieved what Peter Mennis has shown whit the “Goose” an Airship constructed as two Balloons harnessed to the Seatbasket, and a steady Central Parrashute. Making his Lifting power or Gass as he goes allong, rising, falling, drifting, “at will of Opperator” and minding the Stearing Apparatus licke a Charm..."

Some of the drawings within the first thirty-six pages of Recolections include the headers “Lather Propositions” and “Aftermath” and seem to be somewhat later insertions. The Aeros are rendered in a style even more akin to patent drawings, with labels, legends, and commentary that often takes the form of banter among the men, as if Dellschau was reliving snippets of remembered dialogue. These illustrations also are framed by thin sepia rules, and sometimes a border filled in with a pale red ink wash. Dellschau made the Lather Propostions and Aftermath drawings in response to a December 1898 letter to the editor published in the Houston Daily Post that was headlined “A Perfect Air Ship: A Texan Who Thinks He Has Invented a Successful Balloon.” The letter writer, a W. H. Brown of Burton, Texas, describes in detail how the propeller design of his aluminum airship would differ from that of an existing airship—presumably the first aluminum airship to be constructed, which had a widely publicized but marginally successful test launch in Berlin the previous year. Impressed, Dellschau copied much of the published letter verbatim into Recolections, calling it “Sucker Kicker Principles,” but he remained skeptical, writing “Now I have read the letter over and over again and there is a greath principle involved in his Teory, but the man Mr. Brown, has he ever seen a Ballon or Airostat Stationary? . . . No, no, the man don’t know what he is writing about.” He continued to consider Brown’s idea carefully, however, speculating “is it mechanical possible? . . . I have my greath doubt about not the possibillity of ataining such Speed, but the danger of Frition, the Creation of greath Heath in a sphere filled with light explosive Gass and the Danger there from.”

The second half of Recolections presents illustrated stories of life in the boardinghouse and the antics of Sonora Aero Club members. The first tale is the “Rise and Fall” of Christian Axel Von Roemeling, a 385-pound man who has failed to remain aloft in Peter Mennis’s Goose and crash-lands on top of skinny Captain O’Hairy. The episode results in Von Roemeling’s marriage proposal to Madam Glantz, the proprietor of the boardinghouse. Alas, O’Hairy is also in love with Madam Glantz, and he takes revenge on his rival by orchestrating an elaborate prank on their wedding night. He rigs the marital bed with ropes through the ceiling and, at an intimate moment, gives the ropes a yank, upending the bed and causing the amorous couple to tumble to the floor. All the while he and a friend peep in through holes at the scene in the bedroom.

Recolections, O. Harras End by Mrs Seelich, 1898–1900, 7.5 × 9.25 in

After the wedding, it is revealed that O’Hairy is actually a man of questionable reputation who makes his living robbing stagecoaches. He is run out of town by Sheriff Stuart, who pretends to shoot at him but actually lets him escape unharmed. In one of the illustrations, which contains a rare self-portrait, Dellschau is seen riding in a stagecoach to Stockton with a friend of Mrs. Von Roemeling named Mrs. Seelich. When the stagecoach is stopped by O’Hairy and his band of outlaws, Mrs. Seelich refuses to give over her possessions. Instead draws a gun from under her skirt and shoots O’Hairy dead.

The drawings that illustrate these stories are full-page compositions set within a simple ruled border. The figures are carefully drawn, almost in exaggerated fashion, and show a sophisticated grasp of the human figure in action. Interiors are portrayed with specific features that carry over from drawing to drawing, and Dellschau lavished special attention to the details of costume. Those scenes set outdoors show what is unmistakably the Sierra Nevada foothills landscape. 

Some pages are dated 1898, but it is difficult to determine if that is the year he began to record his remembrances. The Aftermath and Lather Propositions drawings date to after the December 1898 W. H. Brown letter that so provoked Dellschau, and these pages show slight stylistic differences in penmanship—the nib of his pen was fatter and the ink bled a bit into the paper fibers, as though he was recording these notes in greater haste. The last page of Recolections is inscribed with the date March 1859, but this may simply be a notation of the time frame of the contents within; the years 1856 and 1859, as well as the years in between, appear frequently in his work, and these are the years he is believed to have been in California. A section of text in the middle of Recolections reads “Many years after I left California, I was standing one day on the Realroad Depot in Richmond, Texas,” which would date the manuscript to well after his departure from California. However, there is an Aftermath drawing with text in which Dellschau mentions that “In studying over W. H. Brown’s Annoncement of his so called Invention of bombarding Air whit Air . . . i come to some long forgat Papers . . . If I had found them old papers before, Geo Newells Idea would have been treated in the forepart, and not the Aftermath of my Recolections in English.” One wonders if the long-forgotten papers were notes or sketches made while Dellschau was in California, and if indeed they are interleafed among the other pages of Recolections

Recolections, Freunds Masterpiece Strong comfortable and Cool whit usefull Atachments, 1898–1900, 7.5 × 9.25 in

Although Dellschau’s narrative is difficult to follow because of misspellings and unusual syntax, he is a masterful storyteller. He uses wonderfully humorous and idiomatic descriptions. He calls O’Hairy a “bundle of bones” and Madam Glantz’s stash of gold a “thunderin big sack of money.” Meister Freund, the local cabinetmaker, offers the newlyweds a wedding gift of a bed crafted with a built-in chamber pot, a metal fan overhead, and a music box that played ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’ when activated by movement on the mattress . He tells the couple, “Now my friendship to you dictates me to keep you two Balls of Lard, cool, or you melt some hot Night. I have to make you a wedding gift of the Bedstead, but you got to let me put in a Ventilator overhead, trough the ceiling, out trough the Roof, and you thank me all your life for it.” 

Text is excerpted from "To Cross The Plains: The Life and Art of Charles A.A. Dellschau" by Tracy Baker White, "Chalres Dellschau" published 2013 by Marquand and distributed by DAP .  reproduced with permission.  

Tracy Baker-White served for twenty years as curator of education and an arts administrator at the San Antonio Museum of Art, in San Antonio, and the Corcoran College of Art and Design, in Washington, DC. In 1999, while at the San Antonio Museum of Art, she served as project director for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study the works of Charles A. A. Dellschau. Her research resulted in the exhibition “Flight or Fancy: The Secret Life of Charles A. A. Dellschau,” which traveled to the Mennello Museum of American Art, in Orlando, Florida. and published an article of the same name in Folk Art 25, no. 3 (Fall 2000).  

Selections from this work, "Recolections" will be exhibited at the Metro Show 2014 for the first time ever by Stephen Romano, Booth 300.  Author and Dellschau scholar Tracy Baker White, along with the late Thomas McEvilley, were some of the first art historians to write about this work. Their writings articulate the significance of this body of work as one of the first by an American self taught artist and have been instrumental in understanding the complexity and wit in Dellschau's subsequent oeuvre.


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