Golden Age of Aurora
The Oregon story is filled with distinct chapters about people seeking freedom and a fresh start in a new territory. We are a state of immigrants and it has been that way since the state’s earliest days. Oregon has always drawn folks seeking a better life.
You can tell a lot about an Oregon town by the music they play in the parades they march in a story as old as the state. The Aurora Colony Brass Band connects the past with the present through timeless music.
“The Aurora Brass Band was at the first Oregon State Fair – from the earliest days of the state and it was the glue that kept the community together,” said Old Aurora Colony Museum Curator Patrick Harris. “Each child – if they wanted to – could learn an instrument or be in the choir – they had a string orchestra and choirs so there was music at every function.”
Distinct music that made folks smile and put their town on the map. “Oompa-pa-pa music is the best way to describe it,” added Harris. “They also wrote their own songs, like the ‘Aurora March.’ It was a parade march and very patriotic.”
When you step inside a former ox barn that became a house that became the Old Aurora Colony Historic Museum, you quickly discover that Oregon’s first National Historic District holds on to history through its music, artistry and craftsmanship.
For example, the nimble fingers of quilter Mary Doak keep Aurora’s story relevant today. “Women were not necessarily encouraged or allowed to be artists,” noted the longtime quilter. “Quilts were one way for women to share their artistic expressions. It was a way for them to let that art out, spend time with their friends and catch up on what was going on in town.”
Nearby, Elizabeth Howley’s spinning wheel goes round and round to make thread and yarn for fabric. It began as a hobby that she was drawn to, but she quickly found new respect for the lifestyle of old Aurora. “I cannot imagine that every garment I wore would mean I had to spin the yarn and weave the fabric. Everything! It meant that someone in the family never stopped spinning if you were going to be clothed. My goodness!”
The Aurora Colony began in the 1860s, when 250 German and Dutch immigrants were led to Oregon by charismatic leader Wilhelm Keil. He named the town for his daughter, Aurora, and within short order the village grew to more than 600 residents. Folks put their shoulders to the wheel and built an economy and community out of the wilderness. They shared the wealth of their efforts with each other and according to Harris, Aurora became the first successful Christian commune to establish in Oregon.
Reg Keddie – a member of the Aurora Colony Historical Society, said that Aurora has more than 25 original homes and buildings that are listed on the National Historic Registry and the effort to preserve the past never ends.
“All of our historic buildings need constant attention or painting or parts that need to be replaced,” noted Keddie. “Plus, you can’t go down to Home Depot and buy something to fix a broken part. We must maintain buildings the way they were built.”
But the efforts to protect and preserve the town are worth it, for when you step inside them, it’s like taking a step back in time.
Harris insisted that the way to understand and appreciate Aurora’s pioneering past is to appreciate its musical history: “Almost everyone who traveled through Aurora back in the 1800s – and there were quite a few people who came through – mentioned that music was the reason for their visits. It made a good impression upon visitors – and that’s pretty rare.”
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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