Fremont County, Iowa

The Flying Machine of Imogene

View From the Attic - A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society,
Week of August 15, 2009
by Margaret Laughlin

August Werner, born on March 24, 1849 in Germany, came to the United States in 1870 and settled in Red Oak. He married Martha Cure there on August 21, 1876. In 1879, he was instrumental in the platting and development of the town of Imogene.

In 1880, August and Mattie Werner ran a restaurant and boarding house on Railroad Street. By 1883, the Werner’s lived in a house on Main Street next to August’s cabinet making business. August was also a furniture dealer and the town undertaker.

He was an exceptional woodworker. He also built miniature helicopters complete with a propeller. These were powered by wooden cranks. People would come into his shop to watch in amazement as the helicopters lifted themselves off of his workbench.

August started making larger and larger versions. He was able to get each larger version to fly successfully. Early in 1886, Imogene was a buzz as August worked on his eighth “flying ship”, - a full-size helicopter, that he planned to fly not only around Imogene but all the way to Washington, D.C. for lunch with President Grover Cleveland and then to Europe to have supper with the Kaiser in Berlin. The sometimes strange and fanatically religious August became even more so as the launch date approached.

On July 4, 1886, August and a few friends excitedly carried the wooden helicopter up to the top of a First Street hill, between Market and Walnut, to land he had purchased in 1882. A large crowd from Imogene and nearby communities gathered to witness this historical takeoff. August and John Barker boarded the helicopter. The blade began to rotate. They cranked faster and faster. Some witnesses claimed the helicopter rose at least 4 feet from the ground before a wooden cog gave way and the machine broke up and crashed around August. Others reported the machine never left the ground. Several years of hard work came to an end in only a few seconds; a totally humiliated August never recovered.

By November of 1886, he would sit for hours in a stupid state and then would suddenly jump up claiming to be the “Lord of Lords” who had come to preach salvation. On December 5, 1886, after a hearing at the Fremont County Courthouse, he was committed to the State Hospital for the Insane at Mount Pleasant. While there he claimed to see signs in the sun and believed clouds were airships. He moved to the new state mental hospital in Clarinda on December 15, 1889.

The condition of August’s mental state continued to spiral downward while he continued to be in good physical condition. Eventually he had his own woodworking shop in the Clarinda institution and even made furniture for the State Capitol in Des Moines. He remained in the mental institution for almost 42 years until his death from “senile exhaustion” on August 26, 1931. August is buried in the Monroe Township 'Old Lutheran Cemetery' north of Imogene.

The father of the Wright brothers brought them a small wooden helicopter from an Iowa church convention. Could it have been made by August? Had August been more knowledgeable about modern physics, would his helicopter have flown years before the Wright flight at Kitty Hawk? Imagine how the history of Imogene, aviation visionary August Werner and his flying machine would read if July 4, 1886 had turned out differently.  

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Page updated on October 20, 2020 by Karyn Techau