Minimalists in History: Aurora Colony

Aurora Colony

“I wish I could make you understand what a peaceful, industrious and harmonious group of people composed the Aurora Colony.”

– Elizabeth Giesy, colony member

Wilhelm Keil came to the U.S. from Prussia at the age of 25. He worked as a tailor, then as a healer, opening his own drugstore and giving himself the title of “doctor.”

At the age of 32, he founded a Christian Utopian society in Missouri called Bethel Colony. Its residents built their own homes, raised their own food and made their own furniture, clothing and music.

Within 11 years, Bethel had grown to 650 residents. Keil decided it was time to expand the colony out West. In 1856, he purchased 320 acres and a mill in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

At its peak, about 600 people lived in the colony, which disbanded in 1883, not long after Keil’s death. Nearly all the residents were German and Swiss emigrants.

“All there is to this thing of getting something out of life is to work, laugh and love a bit; take an interest in the things the other fellow is doing and do your share of whatever comes to hand.”

– George Wolfer, colony member

Like the Shakers, members of the Aurora Colony lived communally and plainly. They also valued hard work. Unlike the Shakers, Aurora Colony residents were not required to be celibate, and the residents lived in family groups.

The Aurora Colony soon became known for its orchards, food, music, textiles, furniture, and other crafts. The Aurora Colony Band traveled around Oregon and Washington to play its music. Tourists stopped at the Aurora Colony Hotel restaurant for its excellent German food.

Today, the colony’s mill still stands, as do the general store and some houses and farm buildings. Five of these buildings are at the Old Aurora Colony Museum. You can also see some privately owned buildings that now house shops.

“It is the crafted items that survive with the greatest testimony to the skill and the commitment of the workers who made up Dr. Keil’s communal society.”

– Patrick J. Harris

Also like the Shakers, the Aurora colonists became known for their high-quality craftsmanship. Some believe “this commitment to the ideal of perfection in craft as also expressed by the better known Shakers, is based primarily in the christian [sic] communal lifestyle that demanded an attention to detail and quality.”

They, too, had a distinctive simple style of furniture. They also made simple but beautiful quilts and baskets.

“[T]hese people had all their wants supplied and lived without care.”

– William Bek

In 1875, Charles Nordhoff published a book called The Communistic Societies of the United States. The chapter about the Aurora Colony is available for free online here.

He says the residents of the Aurora Colony were “remarkable chiefly for their simplicity.” Describing the Aurora colonists, Nordhoff says, “Their living is extremely plain. . . . What is not directly useful is sternly left out. . . . There is . . . plenty of every thing that is absolutely necessary to support life – and nothing superfluous.”

Nordhoff, however, was not impressed by the fact there was “nothing to please the taste, no pretty outlook.” He suggested the residents make the village more picturesque.

They replied that for now “we must support our widows, our orphans, our old people who can no longer produce. No man is allowed to want here amongst us; we all work for the helpless.”

Despite what Nordhoff saw as ugliness and untidiness, he said there could be no doubt that the people were happy and contented. “What puzzled me was to find a considerable number of people in the United States satisfied with so little.” He felt their happiness arose in part from the security against poverty.

Learning more about Aurora Colony

To learn more, read Aurora: An American Experience in Quilt, Community, and Craft, by Jane Kirkpatrick. This book not only includes some of the colony’s history, but a lot of photos of colony buildings, residents and crafts, with a focus on quilts.

You may also want to read Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage, by James J. Kopp, which briefly discusses the Aurora Colony.

Interesting Tidbit

In no way related to simplicity, this is trivia purely for your amusement.

When Keil and his followers came West from Missouri via wagon train, they brought along Keil’s son Willie, who had died a few days before the departure.

Keil had promised his son he’d lead the wagon train, so he did. They transported his body across the Oregon Trail in the lead wagon in a metal-lined coffin filled with whiskey.

Pretty weird, huh? For more information, run an Internet search for “pickled pioneer.” Really.

Giving Tuesday

Just a quick plug for #GivingTuesday. Please take some time today give to whatever cause strikes your fancy. Since this is a blog about minimalism, I’d encourage to you donate some of the stuff you no longer use to a good cause.

6 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Aurora Colony

  1. Thanks for another piece of history!
    It’s too bad the group did not outlive their leader. He must have been very determined, at least based on his traveling companion.

    • I laughed out loud! Apparently Dr. Keil was one just one of those charismatic people and there was no one to fill his shoes. Interestingly, though, the colonists unwound everything amicably without fighting, which I think is impressive. Can you imagine that happening today?

  2. Hello Christy, I am really enjoying this series! I agree with Lois on the lesson in this story – love the quote ”we must support our widows, our orphans, our old people who can no longer produce. No man is allowed to want here amongst us; we all work for the helpless.” Take care, and enjoy the Christmas season!

  3. Interesting, your posts on minimalists in history are so unique I look forward to them. I think the most important lesson I will take from this is the duty they felt for those who were needy and couldn’t provide for themselves. I wish I knew an entire community like that today.

    The trivia was different. I get keeping a promise to let his son lead the wagons, but packed with whiskey? 🙂

    For giving Tuesday I used acts of kindness and received several as well. Allowing another to go ahead of me in line at the grocery store (who had way more than I did) simply because she had children and I know they only have a short amount of patience to sit still in a line. People were in good spirits today despite the cold opening and holding doors for others, and having kind words for strangers. In a final act before heading home I left a few dollars in a bucket for the Salvation Army.

    • Thanks. I agree with your assessment of the most important lesson. I believe the whiskey was used as to preserve the body – the Bethel Colony distilled their own whiskey so they probably had plenty of it handy.

      I spent a little of every day this week, including Tuesday, working on the items I’m donating to a bake sale.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.