French Prairie Loop
Before leaving Champoeg State Park, pick up a brochure at the visitors center outlining the French Prairie Loop, a 40-mile byway for car and bicycle touring. History buffs, thrift shoppers, and antique aficionados will enjoy the chance to indulge their passions along this route.
French Canadian trappers settled here in the 1820s and 1830s to help the Hudson’s Bay Company establish a presence in the Willamette Valley. During the 1849 California gold rush, wheat and produce from this area were shipped to granaries and warehouses in the area of present-day Portland and on to San Francisco.
Churches and buildings dating back to the 19th century have earned St. Paul, one of the towns on the loop (Rte. 219), National Historic District status. The Northwest’s oldest Catholic church, St. Paul’s, dates to circa 1846; some parishioners claim ancestral links with the French Canadian trappers who were Oregon’s first permanent white settlers.
The building underwent a $1 million reconstruction after being damaged by an earthquake in 1993. The church was rebuilt with its original bricks and was reinforced with concrete.
Each Fourth of July weekend, an Oregon tradition takes place with the flat-out fun St. Paul Rodeo (800/237-5920, www.stpaulrodeo.com), which includes a fireworks display, a barbecue, and an art auction. The prize money is good, so you’ll see many top riders and ropers competing.
On the east side of the loop, Aurora, at the junction of Routes 219 and 99, also enjoys National Historic District status. Oregon’s legacy as a haven for utopian communities began here with a Prussian immigrant, Dr. William Keil. He started a communal colony for Oregon Trail pioneers, naming the town that grew out of it after his daughter.
The Aurora colony fused Christian fundamentalism with collectivist principles, garnering distinction for its thriving farms and the excellence of its handicrafts. Despite Aurora’s early success, a smallpox epidemic in 1862 and the coming of the railroad, which undermined Willamette River trade in the subsequent decade, provided the catalysts for the town’s demise. Keil himself died in 1877, and the struggling colony disbanded a few years later.
The Old Aurora Colony Museum (15018 2nd St. NE, Aurora, 503/678-5754, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., noon–4 p.m. Sun. Feb.–Dec., $6 adults, $5 seniors, $2 students) consists of five buildings, including two of the colony’s homesteads, the communal washhouse, and the farm equipment shed. Items of interest include old tools, a collection of musical instruments, and a recording left over from the colony band, as well as quilts and an herb garden.
The museum is easily located by turning east as you enter town. After one block you’ll see the museum, housed in a former ox barn. Sometimes colony descendants are on hand to answer questions or demonstrate historical objects such as an ingenious spinning wheel devised by William Keil. After visiting the museum, you can take an Aurora walking tour (ask for the free pamphlet) of 33 nearby structures such as clapboard and Victorian houses as well as antique shops, all clustered along Route 99E.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel