Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Aurora colony: Oregon's First Commune

 A few years ago, the little town of Aurora, a crossroad on highway 99E between Canby and Hubbard, celebrated its 150th birthday. It was back in 1856 that Dr. William Keil, a charismatic evangelist and self-taught doctor, brought some of his followers across the Oregon Trail from their communal colony in Bethel, Missouri, in search of good farming land.
What an odd procession this band of believers must have made as they headed west across the prairies with a pickled corpse leading the train of 35 covered wagons. Before departing Missouri, Keil promised his oldest son that he could lead the wagons; unfortunately, the lad died of malaria before departure. True to his word, Keil had the body placed in a tin-lined coffin filled with Golden Rule Whiskey to keep it preserved until burial in the new colony.
The group, mostly German immigrants, purchased land with an established sawmill and grist mill on the banks of the Pudding River, a day’s ride south of Oregon City. Keil named the town Aurora after his daughter. They were soon joined by other colony members and, through hard work and communal efficiencies, they eventually owned 15,000 acres, and the town soared to 600 residents.
The guiding principle of the Aurora Colony was Christian communal living: members contributed products from their efforts in the fields and shops and took what they needed. Several such communal colonies were scattered throughout New England and the Midwest, but Aurora was the only such settlement in the Pacific Northwest.
The colonists soon became well known throughout the Willamette Valley for their brass band, extensive orchards, high-quality quilts, and bountiful ham and sausage dinners served at the local hotel. In 1877, Keil died suddenly, and with no heir apparent or strong successor, the community dissolved, spreading the communal property among the individual members. The town continued to exist as a prosperous farming community. Sadly, many of the original colony structures including Keil’s home, the church, and hotel were destroyed over the years. In 1974, Aurora was listed as a National Historic District, Oregon’s first.
Today, Aurora bills itself as Oregon’s antique capital and with one antique shop for every 20 residents, who could dispute that claim? On weekends, the town swells with shoppers looking for that perfect, must-have doodad or piece of furniture for their homes. Even though busy highway 99E bisects the town, Aurora still retains much of its historical character.
The story of the utopian past is well-preserved and interpreted at the Old Aurora Colony Museum at the corner of 2nd and Liberty. Located in an original colony building, the ox barn, the museum offers an informative video about the colony and features old photos of the town and displays of band instruments, woven goods, furniture, and spinning wheels. Behind the barn are several other buildings including a communal wash house, shed, one of the original houses, and a log cabin relocated to the site.

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