Bethel & Aurora
Dr. William Keil
Dr. William Keil, a strong, religious man, organized his followers under the Golden Rule: “Every man and woman must be a brother or sister to every other man or women in our family under the fatherhood of God – EVERYDAY.”
The Utopian society of Aurora, Oregon was established in 1856 by Dr. Keil as the site of what was to be his last communal settlement. Keil was a charismatic Prussian tailor and self-styled physician who began preaching soon after his arrival in the United States in 1831. He attracted a following for his fundamental Christian preaching which centered on the Golden Rule and his belief, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Like the Shakers, Rappites, and other religious Utopian groups of the 19th Century, Aurora Colony was inspired by the description of the earliest communities of Christians in Acts 2: 44-45: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. [RSP]”
Dr. William Keil, 1812 - 1877
Keil was born in Prussia on March 6, 1812. During his lifetime, he shifted occupations many times. In Darmstadt, he was a milliner, in New York, a tailor, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a druggist and doctor. After being converted to German Methodism by Dr. William Nast, he became a preacher. Soon he separated from the Methodist Church and became an independent preacher. When Keil began preaching in Pittsburgh, he found a nucleus for a Christian communal society within a group of people who had split from the Harmonist Society. These were joined by other converts to Keil’s doctrine of Christian communal life. Promised nothing but bread, water and hard work by Keil, his followers sold their property in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states and undertook the arduous journey to the Far West to establish their colony on the sparsely settled prairies of north Missouri.
In the autumn of 1844, Keil and his family, with a few others, arrived to spend a winter of considerable hardship on property on the North River. The following spring other colonists began arriving, among them many skilled craftsmen who erected dwellings, community buildings and other necessary structures. All buildings were large and sturdy, most of them made of brick manufactured in the Colony.
All activities of the Bethel German Colony were under the nominal direction of Keil, who seems not only to have exerted an extraordinary power over his followers but to have inspired an extraordinary devotion among them. His word was final in all legal, as well as religious and social matters. By 1850 the Colony had 476 members. Each family was given a house and each person worked as he was able. No records or accounts were kept of work done or supplies provided within the community. Food was distributed from the Colony stores each Saturday and clothing was provided in the spring and fall. While agriculture was the primary occupation, the Bethel colonists supported such thriving industries as a tannery, blacksmith shop, saw mill, grist mill, a tailor shop, a distillery, and a few textile looms.
By 1855 the Bethel Colony had a population of 650 and its property included almost 4,000 acres in Shelby County as well as over 700 acres in Adair County. Yet Wilhelm Keil grew increasingly restless through the 1850s. In 1855, a group of about 75 Bethel colonists led a procession of 25 wagons for a 2,000 mile overland trip to the Oregon Territory.
On the move, a dead son pickeled in whiskey
At the head of the procession was a wagon carrying a hand-hewn hackberry, lead lined coffin of Dr. Keil’s eldest son, Willie, who had been promised he could ride in the lead wagon westward across the plains. Willie died shortly before the trip; his coffin was filled with Colony made Golden Rule whiskey to preserve the body. Willie was buried near what is now Raymond, Washington.
Keil settled his followers in the Willamette Valley of the Oregon Territory. He named the new colony Aurora, after his daughter. For the next twenty years Bethel in Missouri and Aurora in Oregon were held together by Keil’s magnetic personality as well as the colonists’ loyalty and devotion to him and his teachings.
Cooperative effort, industry, and unquestioned obedience to the dictates of the astute Dr. Keil, led to the rapid growth of the Colony. By the end on 1867 with the arrival of the last wagon train from Bethel the settlement numbered some 600 souls. These pioneers built their own homes, shops and mills on the 18,000 acres of land acquired by Keil with communal funds. They were independent, self sustaining and content. Good music, delicious food and friendliness combined with a love of God, brought them happiness unmatched elsewhere in the West of that day.
Economically, the Aurora Colony was successful from the start. Colony orchards soon made Aurora one of the principal fruit-growing regions of the Northwest, and Colony lumber, shoes, textiles, furniture, tin-ware, and baskets were among the first goods manufactured. After the needs of the Colony were satisfied, members were free to market their surplus for their own profit.
Although the Colony lifestyle required a measure of isolation from the world, it needed proximity to markets to survive and Dr. Keil always welcomed “outsiders” to Aurora. With the construction of a hotel, Aurora became a rest-stop for the stage route along the Territorial Highway. When railroad magnate, Ben Holladay, was looking for right-of-way in the late 1860s, Keil negotiated with the Oregon and California Railway Company to build their line through Aurora. Renowned for the quality of its authentic German food the Colony Hotel became a favorite stopping point for Portland/San Francisco travelers with four trains a day stopping in Aurora for meals.
Dr. Keil continued as the undisputed leader of the Colonists personal lives and finances until his sudden death in 1877. Left without a strong leader, the Colonists finally dissolved their organization and each member received a fair share of the total property and holdings. Dissolution became final in 1883 and Aurora’s businesses and industries became privately owned, many of them operated by former Colony members and their descendents.
The Bethel German Colony prospered for 35 years, also disbanding in 1879 after Keil’s death. Today over 30 original Colony buildings survive in Bethel, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
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