Situated on the banks of the Pudding River in Marion County, what is now the town of Aurora began as the Aurora Colony. The utopian colony existed between 1856 and 1883, following the religious teachings of German immigrant William Keil.

Aurora Colony
One of the original log cabins is now part of the Old Aurora Colony Museum. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

Origins of the Aurora Colony

During the early nineteenth century, American Protestantism was profoundly changed by the Second Great Awakening. Emotional preaching, revival events, and small Christian sects led by charismatic preachers moved American Protestantism into a new phase. William Keil arrived in this environment in 1833 from Germany. He tried different new Protestant groups, then decided to start his own, based on the Golden Rule. Before determining to move west, he and his family lived in New York City and Pittsburgh.

Aurora Colony
The Old Aurora Colony Museum, with Emma Wagner Geisy’s home next door. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

The Aurora Colony Era

In 1844, Keil and his group of German-speaking immigrants moved to Shelby County, Missouri and created an 800-person utopian religious community called Bethel. Yet by the early 1850s, Keil decided it was time to move again, and part of the group set off on the Oregon Trail in 1855. By 1856, Keil and his 250 followers founded the Aurora Colony at its current site in Marion County. It grew little at the beginning, but in 1863 many of the residents of the Bethel Colony came west, bringing the population to 600 people. Many of the new residents were skilled at home building, and the colony grew quickly.

The Aurora Colony existed as a communal utopian settlement until 1883. Keil had died unexpectedly in 1877, with little indication of how he expected the colony to move forward. After his death, the plots of land were transferred to individual owners, and the Aurora Colony became the town of Aurora.

Aurora Colony
The Jacob Miller House was built in 1890 by one of the original colonists. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

During the decades the Aurora Colony existed, community members worked together to farm, build houses and stores, and became famous for their band performances, artisans, and craftspeople. For much of the early years, the colony’s residents worked to keep themselves separate from the outside world, even though they did trade with those outside the settlement.

As the train came through and the stagecoach stopped, however, it became more and more challenging to live cut off from the rest of the world. The Aurora Colony Hotel was an important stagecoach stop between Portland and Salem, known for its excellent German food.

In the early years, all the residents spoke German, their common language, and even educated their children in German and English. English became the dominant language as the colony began engaging more with the outside world. Even when William Keil died, many residents chose to stay and continue their lives as they had, despite the formal dissolution of the Aurora Colony. The charismatic leader may have been gone, but generations continued working together informally in the community.

Aurora Colony
Emma Wagner Geisy’s Herb Garden and the Laundry House, at the rear of the museum. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

Visiting Aurora Colony Now

Visitors to Aurora can now visit the Old Aurora Colony Museum, take a walking tour, and enjoy some of the many shops and restaurants. The museum is worth a trip – visitors can see some of the well-made furniture that remains from the colony and an ornate music box that still works. The exhibits demonstrate the craftsmanship of those in the colony – most were trained artisans and continued to use their skills to benefit the community. In the outdoor area behind the museum, visitors can see an original cabin (moved to the site), a wheelwright’s shop, a shoe shop, and laundry facilities.

Aurora is the site of a trilogy of recent historical novels based on real-life Aurora resident Emma Wagner Geisy. The books, known as the “Change and Cherish” Trilogy, follow pioneer woman Geisy as she moves from Missouri to Washington and finally to the Aurora Colony. Aurora has events featuring the author, Jane Kirkpatrick, and a walking tour related to the sites mentioned in the book. The house where she lived is next to the museum and part of the larger museum complex – visitors can see into her home and what it might have looked like in the mid-1800s.

Aurora antique district
Take home something special and nostalgic at Aurora Mills Architectural Salvage while shopping Aurora’s antique district. Photo courtesy: Aurora Mills Architectural Salvage

Antique shops are a staple of Aurora now and run the gamut from mid-century furniture to items that would have existed at the time of the Aurora Colony. There’s also an architectural salvage company in the former Aurora Mills site, and the town overall is set up for tourism with many good locations to have lunch between shopping and seeing the historic buildings. Still small and quaint, even though it’s not far from I-5, Aurora is worth a stop for anyone who hasn’t yet visited this charming corner of Marion County.

Old Aurora Colony Museum
15018 2nd Street NE, Aurora

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