In Oregon's verdant valley, there once lived a cluster of German Americans seeking something more, something splendid and essential at both spiritual and temporal levels. They found it in their Christian communal society, established in the mid–nineteenth century, one of the only successful such communities in the West.
Not unlike the Amana Society of Iowa or the Harmonists of Pennsylvania, the Aurora colonists expressed their values and traditions through interactions with the world around them. At a time in the twenty-first century when people are often disconnected from the work of their hands, from neighbors, extended family, and faith, these colonists demonstrated who they were by their unique crafts and traditions, food, music, furniture, and fiber arts—and by living out their beliefs within community. They passed down their stories, one generation to the next, not through many written accounts but through quilts, crafts, and traditions—the works of their hands are their voices.
The artifacts left behind are preserved inside the properties owned by the Aurora Colony Historical Society at the Old Aurora Colony Museum and the Stauffer-Will Farmstead near the present-day village of Aurora, Oregon. Additional quilts are owned privately and often shared for exhibits. Aurora is Oregon’s third National Historic District, where the society has preserved nearly one hundred quilts and textiles as well as baskets, furniture, tools of tin and wood, and other artifacts, all connected with the colony period (1856–83). They’re showcased in facilities owned by the historical society, including an 1862 oxbarn, an 1865 farmstead, an 1876 log cabin, and a family home built in the 1860s and lived in until
the 1970s. These artifacts, housed in colorful period exhibits, act as signatures and reflect the simple passions of a faithful people.
We are privileged more than a century and a half later to experience a part of their lives in our contemporary world and consider how we are bound with them through threads of art, community, faith, and healing, the past and present intertwined.
Today, the fiber arts and craftsmanship of these early colonists are celebrated with living-history programs that engage children in the work of one’s hands. Each spring fourth graders from neighboring schools bake biscuits in the old stove at the Stauffer-Will Farmstead. In the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse, they sit on colony rugs and piece together swatches of cloth to form blocks and hear of quilting while the sun shines through wavy hand-blown windows against a hand-turned spool bed
covered with a colorful quilt. They pull rough yarn with little fingers as a volunteer spins the wool, surprised that socks or scarves come from grazing sheep. In the barn, they cut a branch they’ll drill a hole in for the handdipped candle they’ll make and take home. They split shingles and put their names on them to cover holes in the chicken-coop roof. They individualize their own crafts and do it as a part of a community, making a memory of the experience.
Adults also participate both as volunteers and as guests of the society during Strawberry Festivals (June), Aurora Colony Days (August), and living-history tours at structures maintained by the society. When the rainy season arrives, several colony homes still lived in are graciously opened for a holiday tour where quilts and other textiles are displayed. Volunteers produce a candlelight drama every year at Christmas, serving apple cider and cookies made with colony tin cutters. This celebration is reminiscent perhaps of that Christ Day promenade where little girls placed candles in tin stars on the colony tree. The old ways are witnessed to with stories, food is served in order to restore the spirit, and musicians provide background music.
The colony’s musical legacy is continued as volunteers and staff restore original colony orchestral arrangements and band music acquired by the society in 2002 and delivered “in three cardboard boxes containing 175 moldy, damp and deteriorating nineteenth-century books and folios.” The owner of these treasures was Lloyd Mills, who inherited the items from his parents and several successive owners of an Aurora home (once occupied by colonist physician and pharmacist Martin Giesy). The compositions survived a fire and the ravages of time; Dr. Keil Richards, PhD, professor emeritus at Lewis and Clark College of Oregon, called the material “the most significant find in my seventy years of music.”
Written with crow-quill pens in now-faded blackberry juice ink, a Portland State University instructor, Andrew Willette, is authenticating the pieces, digitalizing them and making them available to thousands of school children for use in performances. In 2008, more than three hundred CDs containing audio performances and some musical compositions were mailed to schools around Oregon for students to learn to play history for themselves—just in time to help celebrate Oregon’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of statehood in 2009.
Throughout the year, the museum itself provides rotating exhibits celebrating color, family stories, historical periods, and craft. Three novels based on the life of one of the colonists, Emma Giesy; Eugene Snyder’s book Aurora, Their Last Utopia: Oregon’s Christian Commune 1856–1883;
the colony Heritage Recipes;
and CDs of music of the Aurora Colony Band are available for sale in the colony gift store along with cookie cutters, cross-stitch kits, and patterns for prairie dolls.
Women in Aurora continue to quilt. Every Tuesday they gather to stitch a quilt top someone has brought. Others quilt winning blocks for an annual contest; these quilts are raffled off to help fund this fully self-sustaining museum.
Perhaps the greatest event is held each October: the Aurora Quilt Show. Begun more than thirty-five years ago, before many communities recognized the artistry and craftsmanship of quilting, the show displays some of the original colony quilts, textiles, and clothing within the society’s collection.Frequently, privately held colony quilts are included along with handmade garments, coverlets, other textiles, baskets, and metalwork made by Aurorans.
Colorful exhibits display musical instruments, the famous Schellenbaum
that led the way west, miniature doll houses, toys, and blue-painted trunks associated with the colony’s history. The displays are exhibited throughout the Oxbarn Museum, the Steinbach cabin, and on both floors of the Giesy-Kraus House next door.
For ten days each fall, people can examine these textile treasures and handcrafted artifacts of the men and women who followed God, a man, and a dream and crossed a continent to live a spare and splendid life within community. A slow walk through the exhibits reminds us of the healing beauty that arises out of quilts and crafts made with loving care.
As during the colony period, all are welcome.
I began seeing quilts and crafts as stories while wandering through antique stores imagining how people once used a strange-looking tool or how many hours it took to piece a now-worn Ocean Waves quilt. Then several of my novels were chosen to be quilted by various quilting groups in the Northwest. The beauty and uniqueness of these fiber stories made me more conscious of quilts as narratives and how such crafts reflected the women who had made them. My interest was cemented a few years later when I was invited to be the guest scholar for a weekend retreat of quilters led by quilter and writer Mary Bywater Cross. Even though I’d never quilted, she asked me to speak of stories and how they informed our lives. While I told stories, the women from around the country sewed and stitched, having brought their material and machines with them to the Willamette Valley.
During a break, I paged through Mary’s book Quilts of the Oregon Trail
and there found a story of a quilt
stitched by Emma Wagner Giesy. Her story, and that of the colonies she came from, led me to Aurora and its roots in Germany; then to Indiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Washington State, and finally Oregon. Emma’s fiber art served as her legacy. The Change and Cherish Historical Series (WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group) chronicles her journey to celebrate her voice in a society that often acted tone-deaf to its female members.
In the process of researching and writing, I fell in love with the way the community stumbled and righted itself as it chose to carry out its faith in an everyday world. And it is my hope, and that of the Aurora Colony Historical Society, that telling their stories and the stories of these treasures will inspire the reader’s own exploration of family, legacy, and community. These artifacts allow us a new look at the crafts that enrich our lives and help memorialize the triumphs and tragedies of our ancestors. Join me
on this journey to another place and time. We’ll explore the landscapes, relationships, work, and faith—the building blocks of community. And we’ll see how a band of German Americans wished to live a simple, meaningful life in the American West, and how the work of their hands brings comfort.
Excerpted from Aurora by Jane Kirkpatrick. Copyright © 2008 by Jane Kirkpatrick. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.