The Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum in Schulenburg passes the joys of aviation from one generation to the next. The company that had its beginnings soon after the birth of commercial aviation continues to thrill enthusiasts nearly 60 years later.
The buzz of the tiny model aircraft engines is familiar to nearly every American boy. Not as recognizable is the fact that one of the largest manufacturers of the toys is based in a small town in Southeast Texas off I-10 between San Antonio and Houston. Since 1939, the Stanzel family has been supplying the world with kit models of flying aircraft and other toys.
It all began soon after Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Intrigued by the wonder of flight, Victor Stanzel began carving solid-body models of popular airplanes and selling them to pilots and collectors. Even at the then-princely sum of $20 apiece and with the help of his younger brother Joe, Victor soon realized that he would never be able to produce enough of the models to meet demand or make a living with the limited number they could produce.
Soon the Stanzel boys were making model airplane kits for other boys to assemble under the trade name of "True Scale." Intended to be placed on a stand, the first models were of biplanes -- the Curtiss Hawk P-6-E and Falcon AC-3. In 1939, the Stanzel brothers introduced the Tiger Shark, the first control line model airplane.
The bright yellow and red plane with a wingspan of about two feet was an almost instant success in toy stores around the country. Selling for around $5, the plane had a small gas engine that spun a wooden propeller. The plane circled over the head of the pilot standing on the ground and was controlled by holding the end of a guide line, or G-line, as the class of toys became known.
Over the next 55 years the Stanzels continuously improved the method of flying model planes. Although both brothers had limited formal education, they managed to get 25 patents for their inventions.
Not all of the brothers' patents were for innovations to model planes. A pair of creative geniuses, the two held patents for a lamp and smoking stand, an amusement apparatus, and an amusement device, among other things. The first was an end table, the second a kind of pinball game, and the third was a ride that thrilled visitors at the 1936 Texas State Fair. Victor also invented a Plexiglas-like building material called "Glassite."
Residents of Schulenburg got the first look and test of the Stanzel brothers' foray into the amusement ride business. The first was a two-seated Fly-a-Plane. Similar to their model planes, the ride took passengers on a circular route. The Stratos-Ship came next and it was a six-passenger Buck Rogers-inspired space ship on an arm pivoting on a tower. The amusement ride business never quite replaced the toy business.
As the baby boom of the 1950s took off, so did the Stanzels' factory to supply toys to the new generation. They were a leader in using plastic injection modeling for making toys. In 1958, they offered their first battery-operated airplane, the Electronic Flash.
In 1989, the brothers were recognized for their contributions by being inducted into the Academy of Model Aeronautics Hall of Fame. Joe Stanzel passed away in 1990 and Victor died nine years later. Before their deaths, they created the Stanzel Family Foundation to provide charitable and educational opportunities to the Schulenburg community. The company is now run by a nephew, Theodore Stanzel.
The museum is a delightful legacy to the hard-working and inventive brothers. Opened in 1999, the room contains more than 30 displays of the company's toys and interactive displays that explain the inner workings of the model airplane engine, how an airplane's wings create lift, and the history of aviation. A short video at the start of the displays is more about the wonders of aviation than the incredible story of two hobbyists turned entrepreneurs.
Schulenburg is still a quiet little farming community, and generations of the residents have worked in the Stanzel toy factory. Next to the modern brick museum with a bright red metal roof is the house that Victor and Joe's grandparents built when they immigrated to Texas from Eastern Europe's Moravia in 1869. Part of the museum complex, the house is an interesting look into the life of 19th-century Texans.
The Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum is at 311 Baumgarten Street at the corner of Kessler Avenue (U.S. 77) on the south side of the downtown business district. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors, and free for children under 12 and school groups. The doors open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:30am-4:30pm, and Sunday, 1:30-4pm. For more information, call the museum at 979/743-6559 or visit their Web site at www.stanzelmuseum.org. For information on Schulenburg, call 979/743-4514.
Coming up this weekend ...
Texas Independence Day Celebration at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park celebrates the 165th anniversary of Texas independence from Mexico, where it began. The weekend will be filled with music, re-enactors, and tradesmen demonstrating their crafts, Mar. 3-4. 936/878-2214.
Independence Day at the Johnson Settlement in Johnson City brings the 1860s and 1870s to life at the old ranch headquarters with costumed interpreters, March 3, 8:30am-4:30pm. 830/868-7128x244.
Fathers of Texas Cowboy Rendezvous and Independence Day Celebration in Luckenbach offers an afternoon of fun topped off with an evening concert by Gary P. Nunn, March 3. 830/997-3224 or www.luckenbachtexas.com.
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Texas Independence Trail Region brochure leads day trippers through the historical section of Southeastern Texas from Houston and Galveston to San Antonio. The booklet with map covers 28 counties that figured prominently in the Texas Revolution. It would be nearly impossible to drive the entire route in a day, but when taken in bits and pieces, the brochure makes the story of the birth of the Republic come alive. The brochure is free and may be obtained by calling 463-6255, at www.thc.state.tx.us, or in person from the Visitors Center in the Old Land Office on the Capitol grounds.