Aurora Built on Religious Freedom, Music, Communal Living

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on February 10, 2002

Music has been known to bridge generations of listeners with its lyrical spell, but at least one town in Oregon connects its heritage to the language of music and community. Nearly 150 years ago, Aurora, Ore., (pop. 655) was settled by carpenters and musicians, farmers and families, all in search of religious freedom.

In 1856, Dr. William Keil and members of his Christian colony, most of them German immigrants, traveled over the Oregon Trail from Bethel, Mo., to a 400-acre plot of rich farmland in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The colony was named Aurora, after Keil’s daughter. Soon, the village became not only a religious hub but also a cultural community.

“They made everything, and everything they did was of the finest quality,” says Jane Bloomfield, executive director of the Old Aurora Colony Museum. “It’s so fascinating how people made this work in such a communal way for so long.”

Among the items created by these colonists were musical instruments. Aurora’s traveling band and orchestra attained such renown it was well known up and down the West Coast. When the railroad came through in 1870, Aurora became a destination location for those eager to hear the music and eat hearty German meals.

At its peak, the colony had around 600 inhabitants. They manufactured spinning wheels and made their own clothes, fabric, and blankets. Colonists, besides operating a gristmill and processing timber, grew wheat, herbs for teas and medicines, and other crops—including clover, which was grown for animal feed.

Everybody worked and contributed their goods and talents to the community. In return, they took needed food and supplies from the communal treasury. Historical documents indicate there was never a shortage. Most contributed more than they took, Bloomfield says.

Today, Aurora is a National Historic District with a passion for the past. Aged willows and maples flank whitewashed houses built a century ago. Wind-tossed laundry hangs on lines strung across back yards, and the Stars and Stripes flies proudly from wooden-floored front porches along Liberty and Main streets.

Many of Aurora’s residents are descendants of those early settlers. Antique dealers occupy the historic buildings, selling 100-year-old glassware, collectibles, furniture, books, toys, trinkets, and other items. Sixteen shops are clustered along Main Street, a block away from the Old Aurora Colony Museum and the colony complex, which includes four of the town’s original buildings and a log cabin built in the 1870s. Old newspapers, used as wallpaper to shut out the breeze, still cling to the cabin’s walls.

“The thing that makes Aurora so unusual is the amount of artifacts and items actually used by the colonists that we still have,” Bloomfield says. “The town has that feeling that you’ve stepped back in time.”

Charlotte Wirfs, owner of the Quilter’s Inn at Aurora bed and breakfast, says most people visit the museum.

“Others come to relax and find peace of mind or experience a bit of Americana while shopping for antiques,” she says.

A map located off Main Street shows dozens of sites within walking distance. The museum also provides maps for a self-guided tour, which includes many historic homes that are now private residences.

In June, the community comes together to enjoy heaping portions of locally grown strawberries, ice cream, and homemade shortcake during the annual Strawberry Social—a fund-raiser for the historical society.

The first colonists probably would have eaten bratwurst instead of berries, but they knew how to have a good time, Bloomfield says. The formula of good food, good friends, and good music helped the Aurora Colony prosper and endure. Those same ingredients are alive and well today.

“When you come to Aurora, there’s something in the air,” Bloomfield says. “You get a feeling for this colony and its history. People find that really attractive.”