Aurora Travel Guide: 16 reviews and 30 photos

While communal communities are far from the norm, many have arisen in the New World. Aurora, Oregon developed as one such case. The town is a small town in the northern Willamette Valley about 25 miles south from Portland. From 1856 to 1883, Aurora was home to a Christian-based commune founded by 'Dr' William Keil - Aurora was named for one of his daughters.

Keil had originated near Erfurt in what was then Prussia. He, as many other Germans, had left what was to become Germany after the convulsions of the Napoleonic Wars. Also, like many other Germans, he ended up in Pennsylvania. In the late 1830's, he became involved in preaching - he had always had a fond spot in his heart for the theater - and preached a simpler life, one which he hoped would emulate early Christian society in an environment separated from the secular world. A powerful speaker and with the help of the economic depression following 1837, Keil attracted almost a thousand followers in western Pennsylvania - most had been part of another German utopian/millenarian communalist, George Rapp. Rapp had brought almost a thousand Swabians from the German kingdom of Wurttemburg in the early 19th Century to the then western frontier of America, establishing several communal towns - first in western Pennsylvania, then Indiana and then back to Pennsylvania. By the late 1830's, many in his movement had fallen out of his ranks. Rapp had pushed followers to practise celibacy in light of what he thought was the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Many of the ex-Rappists (also known as Harmonists) liked the communal lifestyle and were attracted to the persona of Keil.

Keil pushed further into the frontier and founded the town of Bethel in Missouri - about 45 miles west of Hannibal, in 1845. 500 people had followed him by year's end and helped in creating the town. The town prospered and in 1850, a second community, Ninevh - now Connelsville - was started about 50 miles further northwest of Bethel.

Dr Keil was not satisfied however. Wanderlust and Oregon fever had seeped into his blood. It seemed that everyone was heading to Oregon at the time and Keil decided to join the rush. An advance party filed claims along the southwestern Washington coast by the Willapa Bay, in 1853, and sent word to Keil the following year. In the spring of 1855, Keil led a party of 150 communal pioneers out over the Oregon Trail, taking five months to complete the journey. The Willapa Bay site was a bit too primeval and in 1856, Keil backtracked to the Willamette Valley - after a short sojourn in Portland - and founded what was to become Aurora.
The town developed very slowly, but grew much quicker after another wagon train of over 250 new pioneers reached the site in 1863. German Christian Aurora thrived for over a decade, but as with many other utopias, the communal community could not survive the death of the founder-leader Kiel in 1877. Communal properties in Aurora, Bethel and Nineveh were split up among the followers and the experiment was over.

Today, Aurora is a small town of about 600. There are about 20 buildings dating back to the Colony times though many more have burned down or been razed over the years. Many of the surviving buildings house antique shops as Aurora seems to have dedicated itself as an antiquers paradise. There is a fine museum in town whwere you can begin to understand more about this German-American experiment into a lifestyle that predated Marx himself.

Keil's group were the only group of communalists who came out over the Oregon trail. There perserverance was a testimony to what they hoped to find and their faith in Dr Keil as a leader.

  • Intro Updated Oct 3, 2008
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