Long before "locavore" was a word and "sustainability" was a requirement for any and every business, before co-housing, before cars and malls and suburbs and freeways created a sprawl that we now react against, before Zipcar or the Southeast Tool Library or People's Co-op, Oregonians were embracing a “sharing economy” and living a highly intentional, sustainable, community-oriented life.
Oregon is full of pioneers. These created the Aurora Colony, just south of Portland, from 1856 to 1883. Today it can be seen as a real life template for the way of life so many forward thinking, garden-growing, chicken-raising, tool-sharing, bearded or braided Portlanders aspire to.
Herbs from the garden were their medicine. An upbeat brass band was the soundtrack to their dinners and parties. Local, organic food was a given, and they were known for the hearty and wholesome fresh meals served in the town hotel and restaurant, popular with visitors who would come down on the train from the big city of Portland.
The colony had its heyday, and by the 1890s was dispersing. The young headed off to the big city, Portland. Now, of course, the young are still heading off to Portland, whether it beckons them as a big city or a small one. And here in our digital 21st century, many of us Portlanders young and old seem to yearn for much of what the Aurora colonists had 150 some years ago.
These were a group of Germans who’d immigrated first to Ohio and Pennsylvania, then to Missouri, where they'd established a "Christian communal society" which differed from others at the time because theirs did not "practice celibacy." This group followed leader George Rapps, who in 1805 had founded the Harmony Society in Western Pennsylvania.
They headed even further out west to the Willamette Valley in the mid-1850s and settled land at French Prairie, buying an existing mill and clearing more land for the many families that made the trek on the Oregon Trail from their previous community in Bethel, Missouri. Over time, more than fifty families made up the population of the new town.
Sustainable, local, communal life at the Aurora Colony was not easy, of course. One descendant recalled that in the early years, "every gang of four was required to cut down a tree before breakfast, unless there happened to be no meat on hand, in which case they were expected to kill a deer."
We can visit their original Oregon locavore life at the Aurora Colony Historic Museum, with its garden and other preserved buildings. Take the slide show by clicking above.