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A Visit to the King of Aurora by Elizabeth Still


On the Oregon and California Railroad, twenty-eight miles south of the city of Portland in Oregon, lies the German colony of Aurora, a communist settlement under the direction of Doctor William Keil. In September, 1871, I made a second journey from San Francisco to Oregon, on which occasion I found both time and opportunity to carry out a long-cherished desire to visit this colony, already famous throughout all Oregon, and to make the acquaintance of the still more famous doctor, the so-called "king of Aurora." During the years in which I had formerly resided in Oregon, and especially on this last journey thither, I had frequently heard this settlement and its autocrat spoken of, and had been told the strangest stories as to the government of its self-made potentate. All reports agreed in stating that "Dutchtown," the generic appellation of German colonies among Americans, was an example to all settlements, and was distinguished above any other place in Oregon for order and prosperity. The hotel of "Dutchtown," which stands on the old Overland stage-route, and is now a station on the Oregon and California Railroad, has attained an enviable reputation, and is regarded by all travelers as the best in the State; and as to the colony itself, I heard nothing but praise. On the other hand, with regard to Doctor Keil the strangest reports were in circulation. He had been described to me in Portland as a most inaccessible person, showing himself extremely reserved toward strangers, and declining to give them the slightest satisfaction as to the interior management of the prosperous community over which he reigned a sovereign prince. The initiated maintained that this important personage had formerly been a tailor in Germany. He was at once the spiritual and secular head of the community: he solemnized marriages (much against his will, for, according to the rules of the society, he was obliged to provide a house for every newly-married couple); he was physician and preacher, judge, law-giver, secretary of state, administrator, and unlimited and irresponsible minister of finance to the colony; and held all the very valuable landed property of the settlement, with the consent of the colonists, in his own name; and while he certainly provided for his voluntarily obedient subjects an excellent maintenance for life, he reserved to himself the entire profits of the labor of all and the value of the joint property, notwithstanding that the colony was established on the broadest principles as a communist association.

I had a great desire to see this original man—a kindred spirit of the renowned Mormon leader, Brigham Young—with my own eyes, and, so to speak, to visit the lion in his den. From Portland, where I was staying, the colony was easily accessible by rail, and before leaving I made the acquaintance of a. German life-insurance agent of a Chicago company—Körner by name—who, like myself, wished to visit Aurora, and in whom I found a very agreeable traveling companion. He had procured in Portland letters of introduction to Doctor Keil, and had conceived the bold plan of doing a stroke of business in life insurance with him; indeed, his main object in going to Aurora was to induce the doctor to insure the lives of the entire colony—that is to say, of all his voluntary subjects—in the Chicago company, pay, as irresponsible treasurer of the association, the legal premiums, and upon the occurrence of a death pocket the amount of the policy.

My fellow-traveler had great hopes of making the doctor see this project in the light of an advantageous speculation, and accordingly provided himself amply with the necessary tables of mortality and other statistics. It had been carefully impressed upon us in Portland always to address the ci-devant tailor, now "king of Aurora," as "Doctor," of which title he was extremely vain, and to treat him with all the reverence which as sovereign republicans we could muster; otherwise he would probably turn his back on us without ceremony.

On a pleasant September morning the steam ferry-boat conveyed us from Portland across the Willamette River to the dépôt of the Oregon and California Railroad, and soon afterward we were rushing southward in the train along the right shore of that stream—here as broad as the Rhine—the rival of the mighty Columbia. After a pleasant and interesting journey through giant forests and over fertile prairies, some large, some small, embellished here and there with farms, villages and orchards, we reached Oregon City, which lies in a romantic region close to the Willamette: then leaving the river, we thundered on some miles farther through the majestic primitive forest, and soon entered upon a broad, wood-skirted prairie, over which here and there pretty farm-houses and groves are scattered; and presently beheld, peeping out from swelling hills and standing in the middle of a prosperous settlement embowered in verdure, the slender white church-tower of Aurora, and were at the end of our journey.

Our first course after we left the cars was to the tavern, standing close to the railroad on a little hill, whither the passengers hurried for lunch. This so-called "hotel," the best known and most famous, as has already been said, in all Oregon, I might compare to an old-fashioned inn. The long table with its spotless table-cloth was lavishly spread with genuine German dishes, excellently cooked, and we were waited on by comely and neatly-dressed German girls; and though the dinner would not perhaps compare with the same meal at the club-house of the "San Francisco" I must confess that it was incomparably the best I ever tasted in Oregon, in which region neither the cooks nor the bills of fare are usually of the highest order.

Dinner being over, we made inquiry for Doctor Keil, to whom we were now ready to pay our respects. Our host pointed out to us the doctor's dwelling-house, which looked, in the distance, like the premises of a well-to-do Low-Dutch farmer; and after passing over a long stretch of plank-road, we turned in the direction of the royal residence. On the way we met several laborers just coming from the field, who looked as if life went well with them—girls in short frocks with rake in hand, and boys comfortably smoking their clay pipes—and received from all an honest German greeting. Everything here had a German aspect—the houses pleasantly shaded by foliage, the barns, stables and well-cultivated fields, the flower and kitchen-gardens, the white church-steeple rising from a green hill: nothing but the fences which enclose the fields reminded us that we were in America.

The doctor's residence was surrounded by a high white picket-fence: stately, widespreading live-oaks shaded it, and the spacious courtyard had a neat and carefully-kept aspect. Crowing cocks, and hens each with her brood, were scratching and picking about, the geese cackled, and several well-trained dogs gave us a noisy welcome. Upon our asking for the doctor, a friendly German matron directed us to the orchard, whither we immediately turned our steps. A really magnificent sight met our eyes—thousands of trees, whose branches, covered with the finest fruit, were so loaded that it had been necessary to place props under many of them, lest they should break beneath the weight of their luscious burden.

Here we soon discovered the renowned doctor, in a toilette the very opposite of regal, zealously engaged in gathering his apples. He was standing on a high ladder, in his shirt sleeves, a cotton apron, a straw hat, picking the rosy-cheeked fruit in a hand-basket. Several laborers were busy under the trees assorting the gathered apples, and carefully packing in boxes the choicest of them—really splendid specimens of this fruit, which attains its utmost perfection in Oregon. As soon as the doctor perceived us he came down from the ladder, and asked somewhat sharply what our business there might be. My companion handed him the letters of introduction he had brought with him, which the doctor read attentively through: he then introduced my humble self as a literary man and assistant editor of a well-known magazine, who had come to Oregon for the special purpose of visiting Dr. Keil, and of inspecting his colony, of which such favorable reports had reached us. Without waiting for the doctor's reply, I asked him whether he were not a relative of K——, the principal editor of the magazine to which I was attached. I could scarcely, as it appeared, have hit upon a more opportune question, for the doctor was evidently flattered, and became at once extremely affable toward us. The relationship to which I had alluded he was obliged unwillingly to disclaim. I learned from him that his name was William Keil, and that he was born at Bleicherode in Prussian Saxony. He now left the apple-gathering to his men, and offered to show us whatever was interesting about the colony: as to the life-insurance project, he said he would take some more convenient opportunity to speak with Mr. Körner about it.

The doctor, who after this showed himself somewhat loquacious, was a man of agreeable appearance, perhaps of about sixty years of age, with white hair, a broad high forehead and an intelligent countenance. Sound as a nut, powerfully built, of vigorous constitution and with an air of authority, he gave the idea of a man born to rule. He seemed to wish to make a good impression on us, and I remarked several times in him a searching side-glance, as though he were trying to read our thoughts. He sustained the entire conversation himself, and it was somewhat difficult to follow his meaning: he spoke in an unctuous, oratorical tone, with extreme suavity, in very general terms, and evaded all direct questions. When I had listened to him for ten minutes I was not one whit wiser than before. His language was not remarkably choice, and he used liberally a mixture of words half English, half German, as uneducated German-Americans are apt to do.

While we wandered through the orchard, the beauty and practical utility of which astonished me, the doctor, gave us a lecture on colonization, agriculture, gardening, horticulture, etc., which he flavored here and there with pious reflections. He pointed out with pride that all this was his own work, and described how he had transformed the wilderness into a garden. In the year 1856 he came with forty followers to Oregon, as a delegate from the parent association of Bethel in Missouri, in order to found in the far West, then so little known, a branch colony. At present the doctor is president both of Aurora and of the original settlement at Bethel: the latter consists of about four hundred members, the former of four hundred and ten.

When he first came into this region he found the whole district now owned by his flourishing colony covered with marsh and forest. Instead, however, of establishing himself on the prairies lying farther south, in the midst of foreign settlers, he preferred a home shared only with his German brethren in the primitive woods; and here, having at that time very small means, he obtained from the government, gratis, land enough to provide homes for his colonists, and found in the timber a source of capital, which he at once made productive. He next proceeded to build a block-house as a defence against the Indians, who at that time were hostile in Oregon: then he erected a saw-mill and cleared off the timber, part of which he used to build houses for his colonists, and with part opened an advantageous trade with his American neighbors, who, living on the prairie, were soon entirely dependent on him for all their timber. The land, once cleared, was soon cultivated and planted, with orchards: the finer varieties of fruit he shipped for sale to Portland and San Francisco, and from the sour apples he either made vinegar or sold them to the older settlers, who very soon made themselves sick on them. He then attended them in the character of physician, and cured them of their ailments at a good round charge. This joke the good doctor related with especial satisfaction.

By degrees, the doctor continued to say, the number of colonists increased; and his means and strength being thus enlarged, he established a tannery, a factory, looms, flouring-mills, built more houses for his colonists, cleared more land and drained the marshes, increased his orchards, laid out new farms, gave some attention to adornment, erected a church and school-houses, and purchased from the American settlers in the neighborhood their best lands for a song. He did everything systematically. He always assigned his colonists the sort of labor that they appeared to him best fitted for, and each one found the place best suited to his capabilities. If any one objected to doing his will and obeying his orders, he was driven out of the colony, for he would endure no opposition. He made the best leather, the best hams and gathered the best crops in all Oregon. The possessions of the colony, which he added to as he was able, extended already over twenty sections (a section contains six hundred and forty acres, or an English square mile), and the most perfect order and industry existed everywhere.

Thus the doctor; and amid this and the like conversation we walked over an orchard covering forty acres. The eight thousand trees it contained yielded annually five thousand bushels of choice apples and eight thousand of the finest pears, and the crop increased yearly. The doctor pointed out repeatedly the excellence of his culture in contrast with the American mode, which leaves the weeds to grow undisturbed among the trees, and disregards entirely all regularity and beauty. He, on the contrary, insisted no less on embellishment than on neatness and order; and this was no vain boast. Carefully-kept walks led through the grounds; verdant turf, flowerbeds and charming shady arbors met us at every turn; there were long beds planted with flourishing currant, raspberry and blackberry bushes, and large tracts set with rows of bearing vines, on which luscious grapes hung invitingly. Order also reigned among the fruit trees: here were several acres of nothing but apples, again a plantation of pears or apricots, beneath which not a weed was to be seen: the hoe and the rake had done their work thoroughly. Everything was in the most perfect order: the courtgardener of a German prince might have been proud of it.

We seated ourselves in a shady arbor, where the doctor entertained us further with an account of his religious belief. He had, he said, no fixed creed and no established religion: there were in the colony Protestants, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, indeed Christians of every name, and even Jews. Every one was at liberty to hold what faith he pleased: he preached only natural religion, and whoever shaped his life according to that would be happy. After this he enlarged on the prosperity of the colony, which was founded on the principles of natural religion, and prosed about humility, love to our neighbor, kindness and carrying religion into everything; and then back he came to Nature and himself, until my head was perfectly bewildered. I had given up long before this, in despair, any questions as to the interior organization of the colony, for the doctor either gave me evasive answers or none at all. His colonists, he asserted, loved him as a father, and he cared for them accordingly: both these assertions were undoubtedly true. The deep respect with which those whom we occasionally met lifted their hats to "the doctor"—a form of greeting by no means universal in America—bore witness to their unbounded esteem for him. Toward us also they demeaned themselves with great respect, as to noble strangers whom the doctor deigned to honor with his society. As to his care for them, no one who witnessed it could deny the exceedingly flourishing condition of the settlement. Whether, however, in all this the doctor had not a keen eye to his own interest was an afterthought which involuntarily presented itself.

As we left the orchard, the doctor pointed out to us several wheat-fields in the neighborhood, cultivated with true German love for neatness, which formed, with the pleasant dwellings adjoining, separate farms. The average yield per acre, he observed, was from twenty-five to forty bushels of wheat, and from forty to fifty of oats. He then took us into a neighboring grove, to a place where the pic-nics and holiday feasts of the colony are held: here we paused near a grassy knoll shaded by a sort of awning and surrounded by a moat. This, which bears the name of "The Temple Hill," forms the centre of a number of straight roads, which branch out from it into the woods in the shape of a fan. Not far from it I noticed a dancing ground covered by a circular open roof, and a pavilion for the music.

"At our public feasts," said the doctor, "I have all these branching roads lighted with colored lanterns, and illuminate the temple, which, with its brilliant lamps, makes quite an imposing spectacle. When we celebrate our May-day festival it looks, after dark, like a scene out of the Arabian Nights; and when, added to this, we have beautiful music and fine singing, and the young folks are enjoying the dance, it is really very pleasant. But none are permitted to set foot on the Temple Hill, nor can they do it very easily if they would. Do you know the reason, gentlemen?" Körner opined that it might be on account of the ditch, which would be difficult to pass, in which view I agreed. "Exactly so," remarked the doctor. "This Temple Hill has an especial significance: it represents the sovereign ruler of the people, on whose head no one may tread: on that account the ditch is there."

After a walk of several hours we returned to the doctor's house, where he invited us to take a glass of homemade wine. As we had been informed that the sale and use of wine and spirits were strictly forbidden in the colony, this invitation was certainly an unprecedented exception. The wine, of which two kinds were placed before us—one made of wild grapes, and the other of currants—was very good, and was partaken of in the doctor's office. Here Mr. Körner again brought forward his life-insurance project: the doctor gave him hopes that he would go into it, but he wished to give the matter due consideration, and to subject the advantages and disadvantages of the speculation to a strict investigation, before giving a definite answer; and with this ended our visit to the "king of Aurora."

Before leaving the colony we obtained considerable information from the members as to their interior organization and government, the results of which, as well as what I further learned respecting Doctor Keil, I will state briefly.

Should any one wish to become a member of the colony, he must, in the first place, put all his ready money into the hands of Doctor Keil: he will then be taken on trial. If the candidate satisfies the doctor, he can remain and become one of the community: should this, however, not be the case, he receives again the capital he paid in, but without interest. How long he must remain "on probation" in the colony, and work there, depends entirely on the doctor's pleasure. If a member leaves the community voluntarily—a thing almost unheard of—he receives back his capital without interest, together with a pro rata share of the earnings of the community during his membership, as appraised by the doctor.

All the ordinary necessaries of life are supplied gratuitously to the members of the community. The doctor holds the common purse, out of which all purchases are paid for, and into which go the profits from the agricultural and industrial products of the colony. If any member needs a coat or other article of clothing, flour, sugar or tobacco, he can get whatever he wants, without paying for it, at the "store:" in the same way he procures meat from the butcher and bread from the baker: spirits are forbidden except in case of sickness. The doctor also appoints the occupation of each member, so as to contribute to the best welfare of the colony—whether he shall be a farmer, a mechanic, a common laborer, or whatever he can be most usefully employed in; and the time and talents of each are regarded as belonging to the whole community, subject only to the doctor's judgment. If a member marries, a separate dwelling-house and a certain amount of land are assigned him, so that the families of the settlement are scattered about on farms. The elders of the colony support the doctor in the duties of his office by counsel and assistance.

The lands of the colony are collectively recorded in Doctor Keil's name, in order, as he says, to avoid intricate and complicated law-papers. It would, however, be for the interest of the colonists to make, a speedy change in this respect, so that the members of the community, in case of the doctor's death, might obtain each his share of the lands without litigation. Should the doctor's decease occur soon, before this alteration is made, his natural heirs could claim the whole property of the colony, and the members would be left in the lurch. He does not appear, however, to be in great haste to effect this change, though it ought to have been done long ago. It is always said among the colonists, naturally enough, that all the ground is the common property of the community. Whether the doctor fully subscribes to this opinion in his secret heart might be a question.

Doctor Keil is at the same time the religious head and the unlimited secular ruler of the colony of Aurora, and can ordain, with the consent of the elders (who very naturally uphold his authority), what he pleases. A life free from care and responsibility, such as the members of the community (who, for the most part, belong to the lower and uncultivated class) lead—a life in regard to which no one but the doctor has the trouble of thinking—is the main ground of the undisturbed continuance of the colony. The pre-eminent talent for organization, combined with the unlimited powers of command, which the doctor—justly named "king of Aurora"—possesses, together with the inborn industry peculiar to Germans, is the cause of the prosperity of the settlement, which calls itself communistic, but is certainly nothing more than a vast farm belonging to its talented founder. It has its schools, its churches, newspapers and books—the selection and tendency of which the doctor sees to—and no lack of social pleasures, music and singing. Taken together with an easily-procured livelihood, all this satisfies the desires of the colonists entirely, and the good doctor takes care of everything else.