Tools & Trades

The Aurora Colony at Work


Although basket-making is not listed as a colony occupation in the census, the importance of this craft at Aurora is best illustrated by the large number of surviving baskets and styles. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that the colonists did not consider it a primary job, but rather as an everyday activity conducted as a colony activity for their own uses.  Baskets were crafted for gathering fruits and vegetables, carrying laundry, raising dough and other similar tasks. They are well-made and are reminiscent of other German styles that occur in eastern American communities.

An Interesting Fact

Oral tradition indicates that Aurora’s many baskets were primarily crafted by men and that John Ehlen (1799-1882) was the leader of the crew.  Ehlen is always listed as a farmer in the census, an occupation that would allow for a lot of time during the off season to work on baskets.

Distinctive Style of Baskets

Even though Aurora baskets have a wide variety of rims and bindings they are usually quite easy to spot.  A rim was either single wrapped with splint or double wrapped for additional strength.  This double wrapping is quite common and is known as an X binding. The larger baskets often feature an open weave because it allowed any moisture or water to run off and air to circulate within the basket.


The leading Aurora Colony Blacksmith after 1863 was William Fry.  He and his wife Anna lived in a colony house that still stands on the northwest corner of Main and Second Streets.  This house, dated to 1874, was built next to the Aurora Colony Blacksmith shop which Fry managed and continued to operate until his death well after the colony ended.

The Practical Needs

Much of the colony blacksmith work centered on items that were made for home and wagon construction such as nails, hinges, and iron tires for the wooden rims.  There is also extensive evidence of the manufacture and repair of horse shoes and oxen shoes.

Innovation and Adaptability

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the blacksmith work was the application of innovation to existing or purchased products.  A handle to operate the apple peeler was adapted to work for a seed broadcaster.

It is a mark of their high level of skill that many former colonists made very good livings at their trade after the colony ended.  There also is plenty of evidence that they did small jobs on the side for non-members.

Multi-Talented Craftsmen

As with all jobs within the colony there were several men trained to work as blacksmiths.  And all of them had a variety of other skills.  By far the colonists made more tinware than ironware and there is evidence that several of the blacksmiths worked with a variety of metals.

Willie Keil’s Coffin

The most famous example of this occurred in 1855 when the Colony blacksmith and tinsmiths manufactured the lead-lined casket that carried Willie Keil’s body safely to Willapa, Washington where the boy was finally buried after six months on the Oregon Trail.


John Will, a Bavarian immigrant of 1839, was a professional stone brick-mason and built many of the flues, fireplaces and bake ovens for Keil’s colony.  The last bake oven built by his hands was at the Hubbard Mineral Springs.

The First Brickyard

The Colony’s first brickyard was at the Yost place and it dated to just after great migration of 1863.  As foreman John Will would have been very busy for the next several years as the colonists constructed a church, a hotel, a general store, a drugstore and a variety of homes for the new arrivals to Aurora.  This was almost a period of forced production and all of the craftsmen worked even into the evening by candlelight.

From the John Will family records we learn that many younger members of his family took apprenticeships in a variety of colony shops such as the tannery, the woolen mill or the cabinet shop.  In this way the colonists learned a variety of skills that often allowed them to work interchangeably.

Work and Community

It was while John Will was working on the fireplace at the John Giesy house in 1964 that he had a famous conversation with Dr. Keil who, because of the death of four of his children, had been very lethargic and uninvolved in the day to day activities within the colony.  Keil came off the hill down to the work site where John Will confronted him with “We came to Aurora to be with you!”

Other Trades

Catherine and Caroline Kreiter baked bread for the bachelors and others who lived in the Gross Haus” as well as working at the colony glove factory, sewing gloves and other leather goods. 

Gertrude Schuele learned tailoring.  This was her part in the colony, leather gloves that were also sold in eastern markets.  It was her pride that her children were so well-dressed.

A.H. Will worked in the Schriner shop—finishing shop at Aurora.—He made the smooth finished panel doors; John Scholl also worked there—he did much of the special tooled work of the church.

John Will did his own turning—his spool beds were made of ash.

Johaan Diedrich Ehlen, Adam Schuele and Ludwig Schwader were basket makers.

Henry Ehlen, his son, was a maker of fine clarinet reeds.

William J. Miller worked as a wagonmaker and wheelwright.

George Wolfer was a Cooper by trade—He selected from the well-cured hardwood stockpile at Aurora—the shed-cured stuff, oak whip stock, oak singletree and doubletree stock, shovel handle, oak wagon hoops, an ash wagon tongue—the larger stuff was stored under the wagon shed roof—the smaller stuff stood on end (heavy end down) in the corner where the schnitzel-bank ( the dressing down bench) and the turning lathe stood.

The whip stock was dressed down and tapered beautifully small and neat—we used some to make bows for small boys—not enough snap to be used by the older boys.  We used ironwood—known to you probably as ninebark or swamp snowball—or hazel or a heavy growth Indian arrow wood.  Oak was used for singletrees and doubletrees—because it had the necessary spring and would not snap break (like ash) under heavy strain—Whip stock when finished was fitted with a five foot leather ribbon throng generally split at the end.

Ash, walnut, oak, maple, etc selected for furniture—-cut in early fall to early winter.  Logs were squared, cut into heavy pieces, stack weather cured, cut later into more useable pieces and again time shed cured—flax and resin oils were much used in finishing.

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