The story of model airplane pioneers Victor and Joe Stanzel is a heartwarming saga about two reserved bachelor brothers from rural Texas. Against all odds, they built a 20th-century business that flourished for 70 years on nothing but dreams.
On a wing and a prayer
The sons of Austrian immigrants, Victor, Joe and a third brother, Reinhart, spoke German before they learned English at St. Rose Catholic School. Victor, the older brother and inventor, left school after the 10th grade to help provide for his widowed mother and two younger brothers.
Walking behind the mule pulling the plow in his Uncle Ferd’s fields, Victor admired how effortlessly birds flew and gracefully banked. The rare aircraft he saw overhead were U.S. Army Air Force planes from San Antonio.
This inspired him, but lots of farm boys had dreams. However, not many of them came true.
Victor got his hands on some simple construction plans for a model airplane. They didn’t work well, but he built a model, which fed his lifelong fascination with flight.
But the Stanzels and their extended family were farmers. They had neither experience in commerce nor deep pockets to fund research and development or contacts beyond the folks in their hometown.
Come fly with me
Agnes Stanzel encouraged her oldest son’s ambitions. Therefore, Victor spent his limited funds on technical correspondence courses in subjects such as drafting, mechanical drawing, physics, and practical mathematics.
Victor’s meticulous attention to detail paid off and soon he was creating true-scale models of commercial airplanes with his own two hands. When displayed in the window of a blueprint shop in San Antonio, the models readily sold to flyers familiar with the various aircraft.
By 1932, Victor’s was producing kits for model airplane enthusiasts to build at home. He advertised products he’d designed such as the solid Gee-Bee Sportster and the Gee-Bee Super Sportster in popular trade magazines like Popular Aviation and Aero Digest. Orders poured in through the U.S. Mail and Stanzel kits were shipped throughout the country.
While Victor had competition, his impeccable workmanship gave his enterprise, Victor Stanzel & Co., a competitive edge.
Victor’s youngest brother, Joe, was also interested in flight, too, but Victor urged him to earn his high school diploma. There would be plenty of time for the brothers to team up for more than weekend collaboration and Victor was right.
With a growing market and a reputation to match, it was time for Victor to move out of the family garage and into the first Stanzel factory.
Giving amusement rides a spin
Victor decided that building airplane amusement park rides was worth a try. His designs were intriguing and the prototypes operated just fine. It’s too bad that the demand for the Stanzel rides never took off. Because they couldn’t accommodate many passengers at one time, the rides were unprofitable for amusement park operators.
Joe joins the business
When Joe graduated from Schulenburg High School in 1934, Victor was happy. He knew that anything he could dream up Joe could build. His younger brother had natural engineering talents and shared Victor’s passion for quality and ingenuity.
Victor and Joe’s unwritten motto was, “Do it right and you can’t go wrong.”
When the U.S. entered World War II, Victor and Joe both entered full-time ‘war work’ at Duncan Field in San Antonio, a division of the U.S. Army Air Corps at Kelly Field.
During the war years, Joe seized the opportunity to take courses from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas School of Engineering.
Meanwhile, back in Schulenburg, Sophie was keeping Victor Stanzel & Co. afloat with the help of another young woman named Laura Berger.
After the war, Victor and Joe discontinued the mail-order business. Instead, the brothers produced gas-powered free-flying model aircraft and ready-to-assemble model airplane kits. Distributors sold Stanzel kits and models to hobby stores and other retailers.
In that era, Victor and Joe devised a way to use plastic rather than balsa wood to build their products. That was a turning point in the company’s development.
Much of the workforce in the factory was comprised of local women with children in school, who were eager to earn a minimum wage salary. At the end of each summer, hiring ramped up as the model toymaker added extra employees to the assembly line. There were huge orders to fill for the Christmas shopping season.
The Stanzels expanded their factory space two more times to accommodate the growth in their business.
A 1950s Stanzel invention still is used in competitive model airplane flying today is Mono-Line, a single line attached to an aircraft.
To market their models and introduce new ones that further enhanced the company’s reputation, Victor and Joe continued to advertise and attend industry toy fairs. They were not natural-born promoters. However, they were so proud and excited about their inventions that they overcame their reserved natures to market them.
However, the two brothers spent most of their time in the Schulenburg factory. Victor would likely be found in his upstairs office perfecting new ideas. Joe was on the factory floor keeping an eye on the manufacturing while simultaneously masterminding how new additions to their model airplane line would be produced.
Without fail, Victor and Joe now both walked home at noon to have lunch with their mother.
Big business for a small town
At the height of production, Victor Stanzel & Co., (which eventually incorporated as Victor Stanzel Co.), had 120 workers busy in the factory. In one day, they assembled 1,000 battery-powered toy airplanes, likely a production record.
Victor and Joe were self-educated workaholics, who have 28 U.S. patents to their credit, as well as five additional patents in foreign countries. In the Stanzels’ ready-to-fly product line alone, they designed, built and marketed 75 different products. These ranged from the Electromic Lunar Bug to the Shooting Star and the Electromic Lil’ Rascal to the Mimi Jet Dart.
It’s also interesting that, according to former employees and family members, Victor and Joe never raised their voices. Nor were they ever heard or uttering a curse word despite the pressures they faced.
The brothers were inducted into the Academy of Model Aeronautics Model Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988 for their contributions to the industry.
End of an era
But over time, the public began changing how it spent its leisure time. Computer games became more popular and flying toy airplanes outdoors lost its allure. Independent hobby shops closed their doors. A flood of cheap imports from foreign countries also contributed to the eventual erosion of Victor Stanzel Co. business.
Joe died of a brain tumor in 1990. Ted Stanzel, a retired geologist, returned to Schulenburg to help his uncle Victor. But by that time, the handwriting was on the wall. The business was no longer profitable.
Victor died in 1997 at the age of 87 and the sad task of closing down Victor Stanzel Co. fell to Ted. However, the Stanzel commitment to Schulenburg was by no means at an end.
Before his death, Victor was instrumental in establishing the Stanzel Family Foundation. It operates a museum dedicated to the inventors and the model airplane company’s achievements. It also administers ongoing programs that offer educational opportunities for youth such as scholarships. In addition, it focuses on enhancing the health and well-being of Schulenburg and nearby Weimar community members.
Learn more about the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum by clicking the button below:
At the request of the Stanzel Family Foundation, I worked with Ted Stanzel to gather the stories from those who worked for Victor Stanzel Co. We also traced the progress of the Stanzel business and family. Our collaborative effort, Defying Gravity, How Victor and Joe Stanzel’s Dream Took Flight, was published this spring.
Through conducting interviews for the Stanzel book and sifting through the wonderful collection of photos and memorabilia, I was reminded that dreams can be realized. I regret that I never met Victor and Joe Stanzel, but feel fortunate to have had a hand in keeping their story alive.
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Readers, did you or someone in your family ever fly a model airplane?