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A utopian success story

Aurora Colony Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary


by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Some Aurora colonists lived relatively rudimentary lives by todays standards. Shown is the washroom of an early house that remains part of the museum.

2013 has been a big year for the Aurora Colony Museum.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1963 founding of the Aurora Colony Historical Society, the group that runs the museum. And the entire year to date has been filled with events, activities commemorating that milestone.

In reality, though, the past half-century at the museum is completely informed by the century that preceded it.

The Aurora Colony was established in 1856 by German-speaking immigrants looking to settle somewhere they could be left alone to practice their Methodist faith and raise their families. Led by the Rev. Wilhelm Keil, a Methodist minister who is also credited with establishing the Bethel commune in Missouri, the first colonists were held together by faith and a belief in the superiority of communal living.

“We’re really going to focus on our stories,” Aurora Colony Museum Curator Patrick Harris told the Spokesman in an earlier interview.

Harris noted that 2013 would feature appearances and events surrounding the descendents of original colonists and their artisan pursuits such as carpentry and quilting.

“We’ll try and do a descendents’ strawberry social, like we’ve done for 40-plus years,” he said. “And we have 130 quilts we’ve never shown before, and we’ll show all of them for our October 2013 quilt show.”

Currently, the museum is hosting the “Festival of Blue,” an ode to Aurora Colony furniture, which was known widely for its blue-painted chairs, tables, cupboards and benches. All manner of blue chests crossed the Oregon Trail with the original colonists, a theme that was faithfully continued until the colony’s disbandment two decades later.

Building trims often featured a variety of blues and utilitarian items like washtubs often received coats of blue. Even a lantern or two had its candle illuminate blue paint.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The more elaborate Kraus house boasted a higher-than-average standard of living than most were used to in the 19th century. This exhibit also features smaller blue-hued items such as books, albums, dinner and glassware from Aurora families.

Also this month is “If Our Quilts Could Talk: Stories of the Old Aurora Colony Quilts.” This is a retelling of some of the tales behind five of the old colony quilts and will be performed Oct. 12 at the museum. It will be a highlight of the museum’s 41st annual quilt show “Celebrating Our Golden Memories,” which runs from Friday through Oct. 20.

Next month, author Jane Kirkpatrick will appear at a Nov. 24 book signing, where she will autograph copies of her trilogy of novels based on the life of Aurora colonist Emma Wagner Giesy. All three novels will be re-released next month under the title “Emma of Aurora: The Complete Change and Cherish Trilogy.” Containing bestselling novels “A Clearing in the Wild,” “Tendering in the Storm” and “A Mending at the Edge,” the new release is sure to please fans of Emma everywhere they live.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Aurora colonists were craftsmen and artisans and were known for the clothing they produced. Here, museum curator Patrick Harris demonstrates an early spinning wheel.

The Utopian Movement

Aurora, which was named after Keil’s daughter, remains one of the most successful of the colonies founded by the Utopian movement in Oregon. That classification also includes lesser-known experiments such as the one conducted at the turn of the 20th century by Edmund Creffield and the Bride of Christ cult outside Corvallis.

Unlike Creffield and his group, which became known as the Holy Rollers, the Aurora Colony thrived because of its mercantile and farming expertise as well as dedication to family and community. Creffield, meanwhile, was gunned down on the streets of Seattle in 1906 by the brother of a female cult member.

“The most important thing that explains why this group stayed together is they really believed in the ideals,” said Harris. “They were Christians who firmly believed this is the best way to lead a Christian life, socialistically. The Harmony Society in Pennsylvania contributed some of the people here, but their belief in the rapture led to celibacy and then families breaking away. These folks then broke off and joined Keil; they were craftsmen, etcetera, but they still really believed in it.”

According to a 2011 article on the colony written by Oregon historian and former journalist Finn J.D. John, Keil led the journey to Oregon 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.”

This journey led them, however, to Willapa Bay in Washington, “which an unfortunate follower had visited in the summertime when it was gorgeous,” John wrote. “Keil’s party arrived, as wagon trains usually did, in the late autumn, just as the southern Washington coast’s famous rainy season got underway. Keil was not impressed. Road-weary though everyone surely was, they immediately packed up again and headed south to what’s now Aurora.”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The living quarters displayed in this house were more typical of the late 19th century, when the Aurora Colony was at its height along the banks of the Pudding River.Ultimately, the colony lasted for more than 20 years, growing into a commercial and agricultural hub that was able to outlive the colony itself. The 1877 death of Keil was the effective end of communal living in Aurora. A federal court liquidated all assets following Keil’s death, while surviving colonists, John wrote in his article, even presented Judge Matthew Deady with an inscribed silver bowl as thanks for his fairness during legal proceedings.

“Dr. Keil was a character,” Harris said. “He lied to play to the crowds, but had a side of himself that said, ‘What’s this going to lead to?’ Even the people who had issues with him personally acknowledged he was a strong and effective leader. But Kiel, he was the visionary who probably would blow off the small issues.”

In addition, Harris added, there was always that safety valve of saying “You don’t have to stay here.”

“And they were, let’s face it, used to living communally,” he said. “In a way there was that dependency.”

By the time of the colony’s disbanding, the agricultural industry in the Willamette Valley had grown far beyond what existed just a generation before.

“In the 1880s, there were people here and they were fortunate that the hop industry expanded then,” Harris said. “A lot of them started growing hops on their farms, and they had markets established. Henry Weinhard was a friend of Fred Will, who owned a store here. But (Will) decided to leave and ended up striking up a business relationship.”

50th anniversary

The museum itself is another example of the relative success of the colony.

Opened in 1963, it actually has its roots in the 1956 celebration of the centennial anniversary of the colony’s founding. Because the publisher of The Oregonian at that time, Edward Miller, actually was a descendent of original Aurora colonists, the event received plenty of publicity and attracted thousands of people, both colony descendents and the general public.

“They did a big splash and thousands of people came to the ceremony over a three-day period,” Harris said.

The event spurred interest in preserving a slice of Aurora in museum form. But it wasn’t until a visiting university professor actually purchased Keil’s former residence several years later that anything concrete materialized.

From there, the professor met with colony descendents as he remodeled the house and eventually formed a historical society. The museum followed not long after at its current location on Second Street Northeast.

“You had a collection of artifacts and a group of hardworking people volunteers,” Harris said. “But they would not have started a society. It really had to be jumpstarted by outside enthusiasts who really had the vision of a historical group. So it’s gradually grown over time.”

Aurora Colony Museum is located at 15018 Second St. NE, Aurora. For more information, visit auroracolony.org or call 503-678-5754.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Aurora Colony Museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, with upcoming events planned to commemorate the occasion.




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