Life Goes on for Aurora Museum: ‘History Is What We Do’

During a recent visit to the Old Aurora Colony Museum, the old homestead is peaceful.

A visiting reporter had no trouble hearing the creak of the 200-year-old floorboards, the rustle of stalks in the pioneer herb garden, the gentle tinkle of hand-wrought iron and leather on the walls.

Sadly, it is much quieter than it would be on a normal year, when thousands of children would get a chance to see history in action on their school field trips or summer camps.

Like most “non-essential” entities, the museum closed entirely to the public in March and only this month began opening two days a week (Wednesdays and Fridays), by appointment only.

The woodworking shop offers a look at the techniques of the Aurora colonists, who were famous for their craftsmanship. Photo by Tyler Francke.

And, like many nonprofits, the Old Aurora Colony Museum relies heavily on attendance, events and volunteers. It’s not surprising, then, that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating.

“It’s been a very challenging year,” admits Spud Sperb, a longtime member of the museum’s board of directors. “Most of our fundraising activities required, you know, participation. We’d have banquets. We’d have a beer garden. So, like everybody else, we’re trying to adapt, trying to figure out how we’re going to survive in this environment. It changes every day.”

Covid-19 hasn’t been the only big hit this year, either. The organization also lost its longtime director, Patrick Harris, in April due to complications from a stroke.

“So, in his memory and in his honor, we’ve been forging ahead,” said Caroline Queer, the museum’s part-time business manager. “Trying to figure out opening and events in a Covid environment. It’s taken all of us to figure it out.”

The Steinbach Pioneer Cabin contains furniture, blankets and many other artifacts made by Aurora colonists. Photo by Tyler Francke.

In June, the Aurora Colony established and began accepting donations for an an endowment in Harris’ name.

“It’s very, very humbling,” she said. “We’re so grateful for people’s generosity.”

The museum will also be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday for a Living History Day, complete with socially distanced blacksmithing, spinning, baking and woodworking demonstrations. Museum admission will be half-price.

Unfortunately, visitors will not have their chance to experience history firsthand, as s

“Somebody may be baking some bread or cookies,” Queer said, “but there will be no active participation at this time, because of the guidelines.”

This rare artifact at the museum’s wash house offers a unique and quite literal look at how the sausage gets (got) made. Photo by Tyler Francke.

The nonprofit’s annual fundraising auction has been set for Aug. 29, but will be primarily online this year.

But one of the auction’s most cherished traditions will be preserved (in modified fashion): the traditional salmon bake by Lake Oswegan Fred Broadwater, using a 1,000-year-old technique perfected by the Chemawa tribe.

Broadwater’s mouthwatering salmon entree, and sides, will be provided takeout-style this year, with the help of Aurora-based caterer Arlene Cuisine. Details of the auction will be shared at a later date on auroracolony.org and the Aurora Colony’s Facebook page.

“It will still give people an opportunity to support the museum and still enjoy a delicious meal,” said Sperb. “It’s a way for us to carry on, in a somewhat modified edition, but that’s what we do.”

Despite the continuing challenges this year has brought, Sperb said he and the other staff, volunteers and supporters are determined to endure — just like the colonists of yore.

This hue, unique to the colony, became known in Oregon as “Aurora blue.” Photo by Tyler Francke.

“It’s a very unique story, the Aurora Colony,” he said, when asked why he works so hard to preserve the colony’s history and culture. “The largest utopian religious community west of the Mississippi. It’s very unique.

“You know, the whole town is on the historic registry. History is what we do.”

To hear more, check out Episode 193 of the Canby Now Podcast, “A Time to Keil”:

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