Aurora Colony: a story of communal life
Although a pioneering spirit is part of Oregon’s DNA, the word “commune” might bring to mind the 1960s rather than a Victorian community established over 200 years ago. Nineteenth century Aurora Colony may hold the title to “most unusual territorial community” in state history.
Utopian and Christian religious pioneer Dr Wilhelm Keil had already experimented with spiritual communities in Missouri prior to founding his Oregon settlement in 1856. Over 600 residents worked harmoniously—raising families, excelling in furniture making and basket weaving, raising livestock, and farming. Residents with musical talent played in the colony’s bands and orchestras—performing at political rallies, fairs, and other social events. Colony families tithed their earnings and worked alongside one another for three decades, until Dr Keil’s death in 1877.
Before Keil passed away, he helped establish a colony connection with the Oregon & California Railway. Railroad travel and transport meant the town’s agricultural products were exported more easily and carried new visitors to the famous Aurora Hotel. Following Keil’s death, neighboring colony Bethel and Aurora merged, and communal holdings transferred into private ownership. Ten years following the colonies’ dissolution, the City of Aurora was incorporated.
A modern town focuses on antiques
A few years back, several Aurora antique shop owners asked Oregon Travel Experience if they could obtain a “communal” Interstate logo sign. It turned out they qualified for a sign permit under a special designation known as a Cultural District. OTE’s Sign Operations Director Diane Cheyne explains how this works.
“As long as there is a minimum of four stores in a six-block radius, and one owner is willing to be the contact for the group, a collection of stores may qualify as a Cultural District,” says Cheyne. “One person is responsible for collecting funds from the other businesses to pay for the sign, and renews the permit on an annual basis.”
Cheyne says there are other areas in the state identified as Cultural Districts, such as the Coburg, Canyonville and Troutdale Antique Districts.
For modern day Aurora, an I-5 highway business sign means that motorists visiting other shopping destinations like Woodburn Company Stores might venture off the beaten path and pursue a little treasure hunting. Aurora has made the “top ten best antiquing towns in the US” according to the Travelchannel.com and MSN.com.
Aurora’s antique shop owners also banded together with the Aurora Colony Visitor’s Association, the city’s business development organization. The association is run by volunteers and 35 business owners. As a commitment to preserving colony history, the visitors association maintains historic sites and buildings, and ensures that Aurora remains a visitor destination for many years to come.
A large part of Aurora’s appeal is the town’s National Historic Register designation; under register guidelines, exterior architecture and paint styles must remain as close to the 1850s colony as possible. Original buildings that stand today are distinctly New England in style: simple, plain and serviceable.
Karen Townsend, marketing director (and contact for the Cultural District sign permit) at Aurora Colony Visitors Association, points out why the town remains attractive to its many visitors.
“Aurora’s Main Street of today is a mix of both old and new,” Townsend says. “In the 19th century, the old Aurora Hotel was known for its amazing food. If you walk up and down our streets today, there’s an artisan bakery, a hazelnut sampling room, and a restaurant that serves homemade Marionberry pie. There are no fast food restaurants in town, although we do have a restaurant where the hamburgers are famous!”
Townsend says that Aurora is a short 15-minute drive from the busy freeway and is close to Champoeg State Heritage Area, The Woodburn Company Stores, numerous campgrounds, RV facilities, and Wilsonville hotels.
“Aurora features its own RV parking and public restrooms. Visitors can explore the historic buildings (including a museum), go antiquing, or catch an espresso and a gluten-free pastry all within a five-block radius,” explains Townsend.
Townsend says most of the town’s businesses are open seven days a week, year-round. “Our town is pretty big on events besides shopping,” says Townsend. “Everything from Aurora Colony Days to a ground hog hunt and living history events—we have a lot of different ways to entertain visitors. And when it’s Christmas time, the entire town is decorated with old-fashioned garlands.”
Events slated for October 2012 include the October 13th Antique Radio Show and Sale at the American Legion Hall, and the October 12th to 21st Annual Quilt Show at the Old Aurora Colony Museum.
For more information about historic Aurora and a shop directory, visit the Aurora Colony Visitors Association website at www.auroracolony.com or email the association administrator at firstname.lastname@example.org . The association’s telephone number is 503-939-0312.