Stanley metamorphosis from manufacturer to marketplace is showcased in new Aurora History Museum exhibit

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AURORA | What do flying bears, Amelia Earhart and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area all have in common?

They all have ties to Aurora by way of Robert Stanley, founder of Stanley Aviation, which was headquartered in the city for more than half a century and once claimed the title of Aurora’s largest employer.

Stanley, a wildly accomplished aviator and engineer who pioneered several flight innovations — including the ejector seat — is one of the focuses of the newest exhibit at the Aurora History Museum, entitled “From Manufacturing to Marketplace: Innovation at Stanley Aviation.” The exhibit explores how the former aircraft and aerospace manufacturing facility at 2501 Dallas St. morphed from a stalwart of the Aurora economy to the recently rejuvenated Stanley Marketplace, a roughly 100,000-square-foot bazaar that houses more than 50 businesses.

T. Scott Williams, director of the Aurora History Museum, said the exhibit, which is mostly made up of photos of Stanley’s innovations and accompanying text panels, dives into the origins of Stanley Aviation and many of the eye-popping line items from its founder’s resume, including connections to animal test pilots, local ski areas and one of the world’s most mystifying aviatrices.

Even before establishing Stanley Aviation in Buffalo, New York, in 1948, Robert “Bob” Stanley’s list of accomplishments runs long.

As a naval pilot, Stanley received commendation for aiding in the search for infamous aviatrix Amelia Earhart. He was also involved in numerous test flights and advances in aviation, including the development of the world’s first supersonic aircraft, the Bell X-1.

Regarding Arapahoe Basin, an A-frame structure that was built in Aurora and used to test escape capsules for the B-58 “Hustler” bomber was later transported to Summit County and currently serves as the skeleton in one of the ski area’s primary base lodges, according to information on the area’s website.

And at a remote testing facility located in Hurricane Mesa, Utah, in the 1950s and ‘60s, Stanley Aviation used crash test dummies, chimpanzees and even bears as test pilots during the experimentation phases of developing an ejection capsule for the B-58, according to Williams.

While the exhibit is primarily two-dimensional, Williams said an interactive event scheduled every Sunday through July will give the public a chance to interact with the themes of the exhibit on a more personal level.

“We’ll feature the Robert Stanley ‘innovation station,’ which is essentially a hands-on activity for museum visitors that uses problem-solving,” Williams said. “We’ll have some design/build, small rocket testing — we don’t involve any type of fuel, or course, but it’s fun stuff that visitors can use to get inspired.”

Robert Stanley died in a plane crash in Florida in 1977. He was 64.

Williams said History Museum staff worked with former Stanley Aviation employees, the Wings Over The Rockies Air & Space Museum and the developers behind the new Stanley Marketplace to assemble artifacts for the exhibit.

Mark Shaker, one of the primary developers behind Stanley, said the marketplace is aiming to assemble a permanent homage to Stanley’s manufacturing history near the building’s north entrance. He added that the developers have met with scores of former Stanley employees to get a feel for what the space once was.

“We’ve gotten to know hundreds of former employees and heard a plethora of stories about what happened in this place,” he said.

In about two weeks, Shaker said Stanley and the History Museum have partnered to hire actors that will lead tours of the current Stanley Marketplace through the eyes of various Stanley personas, including a 1950s secretary and Robert Stanley himself. Details on the tours have not yet been released.