In 1855, when Dr. William Keil, leader of a German Christian communal society, headed west from Missouri to find his Eden, his wagon train of 35 wagons and 150 followers had a hearse in the lead. Keil’s oldest son, Willie, died of malaria just as the group was setting out, and keeping his promise not to leave his son behind, Keil placed Willie in a lead-lined casket filled with high-quality whiskey.
Within the year, Keil found a new site for his colony in the Willamette Valley near Portland, Oregon. He named it, Aurora, after his youngest daughter. Aurora was the first utopian community to be established on the West Coast, and it’s Oregon’s first designated historic district.
What’s left of the Aurora Colony, which continued through 1883 and numbered around 600 members at its apex, is a small cluster of buildings in the Old Aurora Museum complex, encircled by four blocks of structures built by the colonists and their descendents.
“Keil felt that all Christians should share labor and property as did the first Christians, according to the Book of Acts,” said Patrick Harris, curator of the Old Aurora Colony Museum. “His followers generally put their earnings into the common treasury, which they drew upon as they needed, and they sold their excess goods at their store to people who came through.”
The Aurora Colony Historical Society offers a map of the historic neighborhood with 20 buildings, the “Walk With Emma” self-guided tour, and the museum complex also can be viewed.
Visitors come from everywhere, many drawn by author Jane Kirkpatrick’s “Change and Cherish” trilogy, an historical-fiction about Emma Wagner Giesy, a member of Keil’s Bethel Missouri colony. She was 20 years old and pregnant when she accompanied her husband, Christian, and eight other scouts, who, in 1853, preceded Keil’s group over the Oregon Trail.
Next to the museum complex’s exhibition building is the home where Emma and her children lived for a time.
“A couple from New Zealand made a special trip here just to see Emma’s house,” recounted tour guide Janus Childs. “I took them over, unlocked the door, and started talking about it. I was halfway across the kitchen when I turned around and noticed that the wife was still standing at the threshold. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I am about to walk on the same floor as Emma!’”
The majority of Aurora’s colonists traveled in four migrations from their community in Bethel, Missouri via wagon trains, a five-month, 2,000-plus-mile journey over the Oregon Trail. A small group came by steamship through the Isthmus of Panama and still another group travelled by ship around Cape Horn.
At Aurora, the number of structures the colonists built, as well as their productivity, amazes. They sold goods from their orchards, granary and saw mill; created handsome textiles, baskets and furniture; grew crops including hops; and were renowned for their cuisine and music venues. By the time the community disbanded, they had accumulated nearly 20,000 acres of land scattered over three counties.
It begins to make sense when one understands a little about Keil, a visionary autocrat, and his two factions of followers: some evangelists plus a group of skilled Utopians.
Keil, who was born in 1812 in central Germany, immigrated to New York City in 1837. “He joined the Methodist Church in Pittsburgh and was on his way to becoming a minister, but decided not to continue with that particular group,” Harris said. “However, he was persuasive and a number of church members liked him.
“Keil’s belief that ministers should not be paid lead to discussions on how to do that, and the communal-living model was brought up,” he explained.
Among these church members was the Giesy family, and here, Keil found his evangelists. Andrew and Barbara Giesy had 15 children and their four oldest sons became Keil’s itinerant preachers.
And it was only a matter of time before Keil encountered members of a splinter group of experienced and pragmatic Harmonists.
The Harmonist Society, founded in 1785 by George Rapp, was a religious communal society whose members were waiting for the Second Coming, and by the late 1930s, a number of other utopian communities had cropped up. “Because of the panic of 1837 with countrywide bank failures, a group of preachers and communal advocates said this was signalizing the Apocalypse and communal living was one of the solutions on how to handle society’s problems,” Harris said.
The Harmonists experienced a major schism in 1832 when about 250 broke away with Bernard Muller. They were living outside of Pittsburgh when Keil ran across them.
These former members of the Harmony Society were interested in communal living but didn’t go along with Rapp’s teachings on celibacy. They did, however, know what it took to be part of a communal group, and had already built four communities — three for Rapp, and another for Muller, Harris said.
“They were thrifty and industrious people, skilled, experienced carpenters and mechanics. They liked communal living and thought Keil wouldn’t be too difficult to deal with — Keil never was a prophetic character.
“Keil sent scouts from the Harmonists to look for a site, and they picked the Bethel, Missouri site because it had a mill and stream. They converted the mill to steam power and supplied the area. Keil was very innovative.”
Encouraged by Bethel’s success, Keil decided to go west. “He was a restless character; Missouri was a slave state and that was anathema to their Christian belief, and people were going through Bethel on their way west,” Harris said. “Maybe Keil visualized that he could really develop an Eden in all that open land.”
In 1850, the Donation Land Act passed, promising 643 acres in Oregon County to married couples and 320 to single people. Free land got Keil’s attention, and he sent out scouts again. This is the group that included Emma and Christian Giesy.
The scouts settled down in Wallapa Valley, but that didn’t suit Keil; he felt the area was too wet and heavily forested.
While searching for a site more to his liking, Keil went to Portland and ran across John Walker Grim at the Portland Harbor, who was getting ready to ship a load of apples to San Francisco. Keil asked, “Where did you get those apples?” Grim answered, “Down in the valley.”
“Keil was interested because Grim and other Willamette Valley settlers were part of the 1847 wagon trains and had brought fruits starts with them over the Oregon Trail, and their orchards were blooming by the mid 1850s,” Harris said.
“The Gold Rush was in 1849 and these farmers were selling apples to the California market, making fistfuls of money.”
Also, some of these early settlers had beat the 49ers to the gold fields and had already found gold, Harris said. “They didn’t want to work all their land, and sold some to Keil, who chose parcels that included orchards, a saw mill and grist mill. Keil ended up supplying the area with those goods.”
Over time, younger colonists grew restless, and Keil had not groomed a successor. A few years after his death in 1877, the colonists amicably divided up the assets through the Federal Courts and the community disbanded. Now Aurora is a typical town with a population of about 1,000, including a handful of descendants.
The Charles Synder House: Charles Snyder was ten years old, when he came with his family to Aurora in Keil’s wagon train. In 1867, eighteen-year-old Christina Schuele drove a mule team from Bethel to Aurora, marrying Charles two years later. They had five children.
The George Kraus house: Built about 1864, members of the Kraus family lived in it from 1879 to the mid 1960s. Prior to that, members of the Giesy family lived in this house during the 1860s and 1870s. George Kraus’ wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of John Giesy, an administrator of colony business relationships with non-members. Emma Wagner Giesy also lived in the house for some time.
Above: Wm. Keil and Company Store was the business name of Aurora’s general country store that catered to neighboring pioneers. Across the street is the site of the Aurora Colony Store where colony members came to receive their goods. It was torn down in 1931.
The Walter Fry House: Walter Fry, son of William and Annie, married Aurora schoolteacher, Lottie Foster in 1922. The couple lived in this house with Lottie’s two children.
The Leonard Will House: Leonard was the colony’s butcher. His wife, Triphena, made some of the colony’s finest quilts. Their original house was converted to he offices of the Aurora Observer newspaper in 1908, and this more modern house was then built for them.
Ziegler’s Warehouse: George Ziegler came to Aurora in 1867. The warehouse was originally constructed in 1890 by Ziegler and was built on the original site of the Colony’s horse stables, the Blue Barn. This building currently houses the Aurora Mills Architectural Salvage business.
The George Kraus House is furnished entirely with artifacts from the Aurora Colony, the vast majority having been donated by the Kraus family.
An overview of Aurora in 1875: Original pre-1883 buildings still standing include the general store, the ox barn, the George and Elizabeth Kraus house, railroad depot, the Miley log house, the William Fry house and the Octagon building. The communal home, the Unter; Keil’s house, “Das Grosse Haus;” the mills; hotel; pharmacy; and church are gone. Credit for this one photo: Aurora Colony Historical Society
The Aurora Colony ox barn was constructed about 1860 to provide an enclosed space for the colony’s oxen that had pulled the wagons across the Oregon Trail. Once in Aurora, the oxen hauled logs as the land was cleared for the village, and helped plow acres of land for the colonists’ crops.
Above: The Octagon Building is all that’s left of the original Pioneer Hotel complex.
The William Fry House: William Fry was the colonist’s blacksmith. He built this house in 1874 when he married Annie Miller.
Above: Steinbach Cabin: George and his wife Catherine Miley Steinbach lived in this cabin with their five young children from 1876 to 1883 when, after the colony disbanded, they built a new frame home that also still stands.
Jacob Miller’s house was built in 1890. Jacob served as the colony’s leader in Bethel and helped settle the community’s business before returning to Aurora in 1882.
Above: In the yard and garden on the museum complex, directly facing is the washhouse. The back of Emma’s house is to the left.
Southern Pacific Depot: Keil was a friend of Ben Holladay, the financier of the Oregon and California Railroad. The depot was moved in 1990 from its original location near the old mill.