Living in Community….Bethel Colony in Missouri and Aurora Colony in Oregon

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian

One of the collections within University Archives and Special Collections is Communal Studies. The Communal Studies Collection began in conjunction with the Center for Communal Studies, which promotes the study of contemporary and historic communal groups, intentional communities and utopias. The key word is intentional. These communities were/are deliberate attempts to live communally, with shared goals and economies. This blog is one of a continuing series….you can search for the phrase Living in Community to find others.

William Keil (1812-1877). Image found here.
Historic photograph of portrait of Louise Reiter Keil (artist unknown). UASC CS 662-40hp-0082c, the Don Janzen collection

The story of these two colonies begins with, is entwined with, and ends with, a man by the name of Wilhelm (William) Keil, born in Prussia in 1812. He worked as a milliner and a tailor, and married Louise Reiter in 1836. He had a curious mind that led him initially to mysticism and a search for “religious truth.” He searched for a universal cure for all ills, a panacea. He and his wife came to the United States circa 1836 and settled for a time in New York, “working at the tailor trade. But a nature like Keil’s is not satisfied with the handling of needle and scissors. He delved deeper into mysticism, theosophy, alchemy, magnetics, and botany and soon moved to Pittsburgh, where he opened a drug store and became known as “Doctor.” He had not been here long before he performed some strange cures. … As a result he was known in some circles as the Hexendoktor or witch doctor.”i

Copy of an oil painting of George Rapp. This is the only known portrait of him, and was done by memory by the artist, who had met Rapp as a child. UASC MSS 247-4230, the Don Blair Collection.

In 1838 Keil attended a German Methodist revival and was converted, renouncing his “witch doctor” ways. He wholeheartedly embraced Methodism, even becoming a licensed local pastor (although the actual licensing seems to be in doubt). He was appointed to a church in Deer Creek, near Pittsburgh, but soon began to chafe under the church’s authority. “Keil’s entire life showed that he was a man who could not conform, and that he was restless under any authority. But notwithstanding his independent spirit, he desired to belong to an established religious denomination. On leaving the Methodist Episcopal Church he joined the Methodist Protestant Church, again taking his entire congregation with him. … Because he refused to obey his superiors in the Methodist Protestant Church, he was expelled from that body. Thus, in less than a year, Keil was in and out of two of the major branches of American Methodism.”ii It is at this time that his story intersects with that of another communal group of local interest, the Rappites or Harmonists that settled in New Harmony, Indiana, and were now living in their third and final colony in Economy, PA. Keil met them and was influenced by their communal lifestyle. Some of those disenchanted with life in Economy, particularly the stance on celibacy, became part of Keil’s congregation and followed him when he moved on.

Seeking to find a place where he could establish his own community, he and his scouts purchased 2500 acres in Shelby County, Missouri, in 1844. Eventually the community of Bethel covered 4000 acres. Bethel is a Hebrew word meaning “house of God.”

UASC CS 662-040ad-0001, the Don Janzen collection.

The hardworking and talented German craftsmen and farmers, after a difficult first winter, were able to build a stable and prosperous town. Nearly all the houses were made of brick, with that brick made right there in Bethel. All farming equipment and all furniture was also made by local craftsmen. “Each family was given a house, while a long two-story brick building near the center of the village served as a hotel and dormitory for the single men. Besides the homes and the hotel, the village consisted of a church, school, tannery, distillery, mill, glove factory, drugstore, and a wagon shop. Agriculture was a means of livelihood in the colony, but apparently the glove factory and the distillery were more important features of the economy of the group. Gloves made by the colonists were so superior in quality that they won first prize at the New York World’s Fair in 1858. The main source of revenue was the distillery which sold whiskey by the wagon load in Quincy, Illinois, for 15 cents per gallon! Bethel boasted the first steam mill in rural Missouri. All clothing, shoes, brick, furniture, wagons, and farm implements used by the colonists were made in the village shops, and the surplus was sold in the surrounding area.”iii

Historic photograph of Bethel Colony looking southward from the balcony of the colony church. The colony school is the large building in the foreground. UASC CS 662-40hp-0070, the Don Janzen collection.
Historic photograph of Bethel Flour Mill c1900 with engine shed in foreground. UASC CS 662-40hp-002, the Don Janzen collection.
Historic photograph of Bethel Flour Mill, c.1890-1910, with north extension (right) and engine shed (left). UASC CS 662-40hp-003, the Don Janzen collection.

Keil’s house, Elim, was about a mile outside of Bethel. It was a large building made of locally-made brick. It had a full basement and wine cellar, paneled walnut doors, and a large ballroom on the second floor. This ballroom was where many celebrations were held, particularly for the holidays and the annual celebration of Keil’s and his wife’s shared birthdays on March 6.

Elim, the William Keil house, photographed May 7, 2009. UASC CS 662-040dc-0299, the Don Janzen collection.
Elim, the William Keil house, photographed May 7, 2009. UASC CS 662-040dc-0302, the Don Janzen collection.
Elim, the William Keil house (south side), photographed May 7, 2009. UASC CS 662-040dc-0308, the Don Janzen collection.
Elim, the William Keil house (looking northeast), photographed May 7, 2009. UASC CS 662-040dc-0312, the Don Janzen collection.

Bethel Colony thrived, but by 1855, Keil was growing restless. “He dreamed of a chain of colonies reaching from his first venture to the Pacific Coast.”iv A site was selected in Washington, and Keil and his followers (some stayed in Bethel and that community continued) got ready to head west. His 19 year old son Willie was very excited that his father had promised to take him along. On May 19, 1855, before the wagon trail could leave, Willie succumbed to malaria. A promise was a promise, though, so his father had him placed in a lead-lined coffin and had it filled the finest locally-made 100 proof Golden Rule whiskey. The body was carried in the first wagon in the train across the Oregon Trail and not laid to rest until November or December when the group arrived in Washington. Ironically, the climate in Washington did not suit the colonists and they settled the Willamette Valley in Oregon, leaving the beloved son behind. Keil also remained in charge of Bethel, even though he never returned.

Aurora Colony Hotel, with the band playing on the roof. Image found here.

The new colony was named Aurora, meaning dawn, also the name of one of Keil’s daughters. “As early as 1860, after the stagecoach line that connected San Francisco and Portland was established, Keil turned of portion of his “Great House” into a hotel and restaurant for travelers. Aurora, located halfway between Portland and Salem, found itself right on the line. Ten years later, Keil faced a new challenge when Ben Holliday’s Oregon and California Railroad also came through Aurora. But this time Keil was ready. He had anticipated the railroad and had the colonists build a large hotel which they completed in 1867. … Visitors coming into Aurora on the train sometimes were greeted by the colony band playing from the top of the hotel. Colony women cooked and served the food and Federal Judge Mathew Deady was so impressed with the food that he wrote in his diary that he wished there was “a Dutchtown” at every stop.”v (Clarification: Dutch is a “corruption” of the German word for German, Deutsch.)

The Old Aurora Colony Museum (formerly the Colony ox barn) with the Kraus house on the left, photographed November 6, 2010. The ox barn was first built circa 1860; what is seen here reflects later renovations into a store and a home. UASC CS 662-216dc-0002, the Don Janzen collection.
George Kraus house dining room/kitchen , photographed November 6, 2010. Kraus was the colony shoemaker. Constructed circa 1864, it was lived in by members of the family until the 1960s. UASC CS 662-216dc-0035, the Don Janzen collection.
The John Stauffer, Sr. farm, photographed November 6, 2010. The log house seen here has 2 stories plus an attic and cellar and was built circa 1867. UASC CS 662-216dc-0043, the Don Janzen collection.
Frederick Keil house in Aurora, built circa 1870, photographed November 6, 2010. UASC CS 662-216dc-0046, the Don Janzen collection.

What were the beliefs and practices of Bethel and Aurora colony members? When he broke completely with the Methodist church, Keil had “found church regulations irksome, and ….declared that he would accept no authority except the Bible, no rule except the Golden Rule, no creed except that of moral living. … In 1844 the plan was made to establish a Colony, based on the Christian ideal of equality and sharing.”vi He refused to have any written constitution, so his word or interpretation was always final. “Practical Christianity was stressed. Each family was given a house, and each person worked as he or she was able. Unlike the practices in most intentional communities, no records of accounts were kept. Attendance at church services, held every two weeks, was voluntary, but the church was usually filled to capacity. Most of the traditional Christian rituals were abolished. There was no baptism or confirmation, but Easter was celebrated. … The practice that caused the most unrest was that of confession and public repentance, but most of the colonists bore Keil’s recriminations from the pulpit for their transgressions with stoicism. Others withdrew from the Colony (but remained in the settlement) or did not join in the communal practices.”vii

Henry Conrad Finck and his children. Finck was a prominent musician, and son Henry Theophilus Finck graduated from Harvard in 1876, became a famous author, and was music critic for the New York Evening Post for 43 years. Image found here.

One thing that characterized both colonies was a rich musical tradition. There were at least two bands in Bethel, the Bethel Band and the Bethel Independent Brass Band (it is believed these later merged into one). The Aurora Pioneer band did a 16-day tour of the Puget Sound area in 1869, headlined the American centennial celebration in Portland in 1876, and were greeted with much enthusiasm and anticipation at an 1877 college graduation ceremony. Aurora also boasted a “Pie and Beer Band” made up of boys and young men, so named for how they were paid. Choral music was also quite popular. “Most of Aurora’s music was borrowed from its German heritage, but some was adopted from the new American culture. … The old, familiar German music reminded the colonists of their Heimat (homeland), but the new, American airs helped to make their musical groups acceptable and popular throughout Oregon.”viii A portion of the music was locally composed, unfortunately not always signed.

Schellenbaum, circa 1910, from the Bethel colony. Although there is testimony that it was used at Aurora, there are no photographs of such. UASC CS 662-040hp-0100, the Don Janzen collection.

“Perhaps the most celebrated instrument of the Aurora band was the Schellenbaum or bell tree. It was made in Bethel by John L. Bauer, a talented craftsman….The Schellenbaum is comprised of three circular patterns of bells (with attached clappers), interspersed with jingles (with unattached clappers). It was carried by respected members of the colony and marked the head of band processions. Resting in a belt much as a flag is carried, the Schellenbaum jingled brightly in time to the steps of its bearer. Common to 19th century German bands, the Schellenbaum….had its origins in Turkey.”ix

William Keil died December 30, 1877. His rule, both in Bethel and Aurora, had been an autocratic one, based strongly on his charisma and ability to persuade others to follow him. Any society so focused on one person will suffer when that person dies; indeed, both Bethel and Aurora were disbanded and dissolved by 1883. There were no half measures with Keil–you either adored and followed him, or despised his despotism. “His friends praised him and considered him a superman; his enemies maligned him and thought of him as a man without principle, integrity, or honor.”x

Resources Consulted

Dailey, Harold.  “The Old Communistic Colony at Bethel.”  The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, v.52:no.2 (1928), p. 162-167.  

Gooch, John O.  “William Keil: A Strange Communal Leader.” Methodist History Journal: July 1967, p. 36-41.  United Methodist Church: General Commission on Archives and History.

Kopp, Jim.  “Wilhelm Keil (1812-1877)”  The Oregon Encyclopedia online.  Oregon Historical Society.

Old Aurora Colony website.   Aurora Colony Historical Society.

Olsen, Deborah M. and Clark M. Will.  “Musical Heritage of the Aurora Colony.”  Oregon Historical Quarterly, v. 79: no.3 (Fall 1978), p. 233-267. (located in CS 044-3, the Aurora Colony collection)

Schroeder, Adolf E.  “Bethel German Colony, 1844-1879: Religious Beliefs and Practices.”   Historic Bethel German Colony, Inc., 1990. (pamphlet located in CS 057-4, the Bethel German Communal Colony collection)

Schroeder, Adolf E.  “The Musical Life of Bethel German Colony, 1844-1879.”   Historic Bethel German Colony, Inc., 1990. (pamphlet located in CS 057-4, the Bethel German Communal Colony collection)

Simon, John E.  “Wilhelm Keil and Communist Colonies.”  Oregon Historical Quarterly, v.26: no.2 (June 1935), p. 119-153.

End Notes

i Simon, p. 120

ii Gooch, p. 38

iii Gooch, p. 39-40

iv Dailey, p. 165

v Old Aurora Colony website: Colony History/Hotel

vi Schroeder/Bethel, p. 14-15

vii Schroeder/Bethel, p. 16

viii Olsen, p. 235

is Olsen, p. 255

x Simon, p. 152

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