Aurora Colony showcased the best of Utopian movement
In contrast to the bloodshed and madness that accompanied other attempts to form a more perfect society, the Aurora Colony lived graciously and ended gracefully. Today, it's remembered proudly and fondly by almost everyone.
This image made by an unknown photographer shows the main street
in Aurora about 1910. There is a meat market on the right and a water
tower in the back. (Photo: Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell collection)
1500 x 824 px]
By Finn J.D. John — October 2, 2011
When historians talk about early American utopian societies and communal cults, they're usually talking about a grand tragedy. Such affairs seldom end well — there are a few notable exceptions, but all too many of them end up an undignified mess of litigation and hard feelings, and some even in bloodshed and madness.
There's one communal society, though, that's consistently cited in positive terms even by authors openly hostile to its religious underpinnings. For thirty years, the Aurora colonists just south of Canby prospered relatively happily under the mostly benign eye of their charismatic leader, Wilhelm Keil.
And in marked contrast to the embarrassment folks in many other communities in the American West feel about the cults that made their towns famous decades ago, people in the area still have warm, fuzzy feelings for the colony today.
The colony forms in Missouri
Aurora got its start in Missouri, as a colony of a colony, as it were. Keil and his followers had formed a Methodist-inspired communal living colony there, calling it Bethel. But Missouri was growing fast, and the Oregon Trail had opened into a torrent of wagons leaving from that very state. Keil and his flock decided to join the throng.
This big, 2-story house was the home of Dr. Wilhelm Keil, founder of
the Bethel and Aurora colonies. It was built in the late 1850s by Dr. Keil
and used for a time as a sort of bed-and-breakfast until the colony built
its hotel. The house had a porch on both floors. In 1959 when
photographer Ben Maxwell made this image, it was in bad shape.
Windows were broken and the wooden siding was falling down. The
house has since been restored.
(Photo: Salem Public Library/Ben
Maxwell Collection) [Larger image:
1500 x 906 px]
Their journey to Oregon got started in 1855 — in a wagon train led by Keil's dead son, preserved in whisky, to honor a promise made to the lad before his death. (That's a story in itself — click here to read it.) That journey led them to Willapa Bay in Washington, which an unfortunate follower had visited in the summertime when it was gorgeous. Keil's party arrived, as wagon trains usually did, in the late autumn, just as the southern Washington coast's famous rainy season got under way. Keil was not impressed. Road-weary though everyone surely was, they immediately packed up again and headed south to what’s now Aurora.
Aurora — named after Keil's youngest daughter — was the stage for the group's golden age. Members spoke German in a land that mostly didn't, which made the social boundaries so important to communal societies easy to maintain. The land was fertile and sunny, and there were already productive orchards in place there.
Pictured are five musicians and a boy from the Aurora, Oregon Colony
in the 1860s. Throughout the existence of the Colony and for many
years thereafter, Aurora was noted for its fine bands and musicians.
Pictured from left to right are: A.H. Giesy, cello; Emanuel Keil, first
violin; Fred Giesy, clarinet; Henry Giesy the boy; Wm. Giesy, second
violin; and Fred Will, Sr., cornet. (Photo: Marion County Historical
1500 x 1073 px]
Aurora was also close enough to other settlements that colonists could sell their surplus goods. This was important; a key part of Keil’s objection to Willapa was its isolation. For although the Aurora colonists liked to keep a bright line between themselves and outsiders, they were by no means antisocial. The Aurora Colony, although very serious about its Christianity, exhibited an almost startling lack of crazy dogma, and did not fall into the “outside world is evil” trap. Members were free to talk to outsiders, although not to regularly socialize or marry them. The colony quickly became famous for its musicians and its hospitality — many people traveling up and down the valley timed their journeys so that evening would catch them near Aurora, so they could stay in its hotels. And the group was instrumental in bringing about the first Oregon State Fair, at which Aurora musicians and goods were proudly on display, in 1861.
This was clearly not a cult that wanted to disappear into the wilderness and go its own way, or — to use a more appropriate metaphor for a religious community — to hide its light under a bushel.
Life in the colony
As for what life in the Aurora Colony was like, sources differ pretty dramatically. Keil may not have been a faith-crazed loony like some other utopia-chasing leaders we could mention, but he was most definitely a charismatic and unambiguously autocratic leader. It’s the benevolence (or lack of benevolence) of his autocracy that’s most in dispute. Supporters called him “Dr. Keil”; opponents preferred “King Keil.”
Under his direction, there was a modest list of “don’ts,” but it didn’t include some of the most popular ones. The colony grew tobacco and members smoked. The quality of the distilled spirits they produced was famously high. They were also famous for their thrift, productivity and square dealing — a combination that led directly to a good deal of commercial success, as it had for the Quaker communities in the Midwest. In fact, the colony members had a lot in common with Quakers.
The end comes gently
Dr. Wilhelm Keil is buried at the family cemetery at Aurora. This is his
gravestone as photographed by Ben Maxwell in 1941. The inscription
translates as, “Here rests in peace the founder of the Bethel and Aurora
Colony Dr. Wilhelm Keil.” (Photo: Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell
1500 x 1011 px]
One thing they didn’t share with the Quakers, though, was an immortal moral guide. Rather than looking for the word of God in each believer’s “inner light,” the Aurora colonists looked for it in their leader. When that leader died, rather abruptly, in 1877, it was all over. The colony’s assets were liquidated in federal court and — after presenting judge Matthew Deady with an inscribed silver bowl as a thank-you gift for his wise oversight of that process — the colonists stepped into the outside world with little or no “sturm und drang.”
The Aurora Colony probably left its biggest imprint on Oregon in the form of cuisine. As the Shaker colonies on the East Coast became famous as woodcrafters, the Aurora Colony earned renown in what we today call, rather bloodlessly, “the hospitality industry.”
Other remnants of the colony are relatively few. Some of the buildings in Aurora today date from the Keil era, and the Old Aurora Colony Historical Museum has preserved many artifacts as well. But there’s something else left there, too — something harder to pin down — and something so subjective that I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. It’s a kind of warm, golden feel that the town has, a sense that this was a special place, a place that served up, for those few decades long ago, some of the best the American Utopian movement had to offer — and shared it unselfishly with the outside world.
Overly romantic hogwash? Probably. But the contrast between Aurora Colony and cults like the “holy rollers” of Corvallis/Waldport is striking and telling. Keil and his followers certainly were doing some important things right.
(Sources: Stanton, Coralie Cassell. The Aurora Colony, Oregon (master’s thesis). Corvallis: Oregon State University, 1963; Kopp, James J. Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2009; Holbrook, Stewart. “The Aurora Communists,” Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks (ed. Brian Booth). Corvallis: OSU Press, 1992)
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