Because it’s summer, a season when many individuals and families make time for travel, I thought I would share the story of the most epic road trip my family ever went on (disclaimer: I had not yet been born…and neither had any of you).
Once upon a time, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Wilhelm Keil, was born in Prussia (now Germany). By the time he was in his early 30s, he had founded a Christian community in Bethel, Missouri, but over the next decade, as tensions grew between North and South and secular influences kept creeping into Bethel, Keil began to make plans to move farther west. He would take his wife, eight of their nine children (one son stayed behind), and many of the families from their community in Bethel, and they would make the long trek to Oregon.
Keil had founded this first community largely by the power of his own charisma, but he was determined that this new venture would be more of a group effort, so he promised his oldest son, Willie, that he would be the one to lead the wagon train. Unfortunately, as teenagers often did in the 19th century, Willie died of malaria a week before they were all set to head west.
My ancestor, however, was a man of his word, and he was determined to keep the promise he had made to his oldest son. He did what any loving father would do: he took his son’s body, laid it to rest in a lead-lined casket, filled it with Golden Rule Whiskey (the Bethel community didn’t drink alcohol themselves, but they did distill and sell it), and set the casket in a wagon draped with black cloth. Willie’s wagon, drawn by two mules, was the lead wagon that guided the rest of the group.
(for the record, while there is some historical debate over whether or not the casket was lined with lead, I’m actually not making any of this up!)
I remember reading in one of my grandfather’s history books that, unlike some groups on the Oregon Trail, my family’s band of travelers didn’t have any issues as they passed through Native American territories. The author of that book supposed that this ease of travel may have been because tribes were intimidated by the full band of brass instruments brought over from Prussia, which seemed silly to me at the time because it’s not like the wagon train was heading out as a marching band, you know? Maybe they would have jam sessions at night, but they wouldn’t have been playing on the road, even if they didn’t have the ability to play the radio or listen to books on tape. The author further mused that maybe no one wanted to harass this particular wagon train because Wilhelm Keil was such an affable and genuine person. This theory seemed even sillier to me. Sure, the group may have been holding impromptu waltz and polka parties at night with trumpets and ophicleides and clarinets, and sure, Keil may have been a friendly dude, but like…he had a dead kid pickled in whiskey!!! No one in their right mind is going to mess with someone who had their dead kid pickled in whiskey!!!
Anyway, the group finally arrived in Washington state, where they finally laid poor Willie to rest and spent a very unpleasant winter. He is buried in a small cemetery on a hill. When I visited this cemetery, we parked across the street, beside an establishment that is named (and, again, I am not making this up! you can google any of it!) “Tombstone Willy’s Bar.” When spring came again, the whole group moved again: this time to the town they named Aurora, after one of Keil’s daughters. Aurora, her two older sisters, and one brother all died of smallpox in 1862.
Aurora, Oregon, about half an hour south of Portland, is still there. It has a museum with relics from the old colony (including many of the original brass instruments), several antique stores, and a small Presbyterian church. I attended a service there while I was in Oregon for a family wedding, which meant that I sat on pews made for the colony’s original church. Unsurprisingly, several members of the historical society are members of that church and were very excited that I had come to visit.
Whenever my grandfather shared this story, my grandmother would follow it up by pointing out that when HER side of the family moved west, they had the sense to wait for the railroad.