On the Trail – Aurora Colony
The opportunity of Oregon country attracted thousands of people to pull up stakes and head west during the 19th century. Some of the first emigrants were missionaries. They were followed by families, and in 1855 a group led by Dr. William Keil, a Prussian tailor, self-taught physician, and founder of a communal Utopian society. Keil immigrated to the United States in 1831 and began preaching. He attracted followers who established a colony in Bethel, Missouri.
In 1853 scouts from the colony went to Oregon searching for a new place where they could reestablish their colony. In 1855 Keil followed with other colonists and in 1856 Keil purchased the George White donation land claim on the Pudding River. This site was a day away from Oregon City, by horseback, but on a route that would soon become quite well traveled as the Territorial Highway. Establishing a new town, Dr. Keil named it Aurora Mills after his daughter.
The migration from Bethel to Aurora took place over a number of years. When Dr. Keil relocated his son Willie became ill and died before they could set out. The father placed his son’s body in a tin-lined casket that was filled with whiskey, hauling the boy’s body to the colony’s new home in Oregon.
I first heard about the story of Willie Keil and the Aurora Colony in 1993 when I traveled with the Oregon Trail Wagon Train, organized by Morris Carter, that followed the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Independence, Oregon. Among those who made the journey was Earl Leggett. Driving a team of Kentucky mules pulling a wagon that belonged to the Aurora Colony Museum, Earl recreated the journey of Dr. Keil. He symbolically had a “coffin” representing Willie’s trip as well.
Three years after that journey, I had co-written one of my books, “Wagon Wheels: A Contemporary Journey on the Oregon Trail,” with Ben Kern, telling of the 1993 crossing. We included Earl’s story in the book, and when the book came out, Ben and I headed to Oregon, and to Aurora, where we did a book signing at the Aurora Colony Museum.
It just so happened that our timing coincided with one of the big celebrations in Aurora ” Aurora Colony Days. Our welcome by Earl, and the community, was fun and gracious.
Last spring, I had an opportunity to return to Aurora, to see their museum, and the old Stauffer-Will farmstead that is also now part of the museum holdings.
The settlers in Aurora Mills built their own homes, shops and mills on the 18,000 acres of land Keil had used communal funds to acquire. They were craftsmen, hard working women; families who were self-reliant and independent while always supporting the community first.
The colonists were unprepared for Dr. Keil’s sudden death in 1877. Without his strong leadership, they dissolved their organization, dividing the property and holdings of the colony among themselves. After 1883 Aurora’s businesses and industries were privately owned, although many former Colony members and their descendents remained in the town.
In 1974, 20 sites within the community were placed on the National Register of Historic places in 1974 ” making Aurora the first historic district in Oregon. Today, in addition to the rich resources of the Aurora Colony Historic Society and its museum, the community is known for its antique shops.
Among the events held in the community each year is a tulip festival (late March-late April); Strawberry Social (June 28); and Aurora Colony Days (Aug. 8-9). For more information visit http://www.auroracolony.com.
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