In a recent column, I mentioned the 1855 journey of Prussian Dr. Wilhelm Keil, who created a utopian community in Bethel, Missouri, and ventured west to establish a new one. He promised his 19-year-old son that he could lead the wagon train. But on May 19, four days before they were to leave, young Willie Keil died, perhaps from malaria.
To fulfill his promise, which Dr. Keil (a tailor and carpenter who later practiced medicine) considered a pact with God, the colonists built a special lead-lined barrel coffin and filled it with 100-proof Golden Rule whiskey, which the colony distilled. They then placed Willie’s body inside, and this odd wagon hearse driven by Rudolph “Rudie” Giesy led the colony’s train west toward the ideal site their scouts had discovered.
That place was at Menlo near the Willapa Harbor in present-day Pacific County. When they arrived Nov. 26, nearly six months after leaving Missouri, the colonists dug a grave and buried young Willie by lamplight. He’s been referred to as “the pickled pioneer” and his resting place on state Route 6 five miles southeast of Raymond is protected as Willie Keil’s Grave State Park Heritage Site.
Al Crawford, who taught seventh and eighth grades at Toledo for 28 years and also worked construction with the Teamsters, contacted me to say he grew up on a dairy farm in Menlo near the Fern Hill Cemetery where Willie rests. In fact, as one of 10 children born to Charles and Fern (Lincoln) Crawford, he had visited the cemetery often — twice for the heartbreaking burials of his younger brothers.
On May 5, 1950, a day after his fifth birthday, Henry Crawford, who had ridden a Greyhound bus on the Chehalis to Raymond route, disembarked with his mother at Menlo. He slipped from his mother’s hand and darted toward the back of the bus and onto the highway — directly in front of a logging truck. The driver, Billy D. Lyons of South Bend, was not held responsible.
Four years later, on April 4, 1954, two toddlers in the Crawford family wandering the farmyard ventured near the banks of the Willapa River, where 2-year-old Dean Charles Crawford tumbled into the swirling waters while his 3-year-old sister stood by watching helplessly. She told her parents what happened, and firefighters and neighbors dragged the river and searched its banks for weeks, to no avail.
A farmer discovered the boy’s body in late May, seven weeks after he disappeared.
The other eight children — Larry, Ronald, Doug, Alan, Susan, Marilyn, Carol and Shirley — survived into adulthood.
Nineteen Crawfords rest in the Fern Hill Cemetery, some in the older part near Willie Keil, and others in a newer section. Both of Al Crawford’s parents are there; so are his grandparents.
His grandfather, Frank Gilman Crawford, was born in 1859 and settled near Menlo in 1887. He served two terms as Pacific County assessor, one as a county commissioner, and, at the time he dropped dead in the woods of a heart attack, was the county’s fire warden. He and his wife, Emma (Giesy) Crawford, had 10 surviving children, including Al Crawford’s father.
Al’s grandmother, Emma (Giesy) Crawford, who was born in 1872, was named after a Keil colony relative who was among the first to venture to the Pacific Northwest. Christian and Emma (Wagner) Giesy, who belonged to the utopian colony at Bethel, left Missouri in 1853 and crossed the Oregon Trail with seven other men to scout out a new home for the communal Christian society. They arrived in Steilacoom, where early pioneer Ezra Meeker encouraged them to settle, before venturing south and west to the Willapa Harbor, where they found forestland near a river that they considered a “Second Eden.”
But when Keil arrived in the train led by his dead son’s corpse, he rejected the site as too wet, remote and forested. He exchanged a few words with the Giesys, criticizing their site selection, before he and most of the other colonists traveled south to the Willamette Valley and founded Aurora Mills (today Aurora, Oregon), according to a May 8, 1966, Tacoma News Tribune story. The Giesys, however, preferred to remain in the land they had settled.
The Tacoma News reporter in 1966 interviewed a descendant of the Giesys, Hildamay (Giesy) Buell, who was living on the original homestead in an 1890s colonial-style home and running a dairy farm with her husband, Edward. She was the last to be buried in the old section of the cemetery, Al Crawford said. In 1959, the Buells donated a third of an acre to the state where a wooden marker recounted Willie’s story. The state replaced the sign in 2020 with three interpretive panels.
I was familiar with Emma Giesy’s story — at least a fictionalized version of it — because I had devoured author Jane Kirkpatrick’s Change and Cherish trilogy: “A Clearing in the Wild,” “A Tendering in the Storm,” and “A Mending at the Edge.” Kirkpatrick brought to life the struggles of this brave pioneer who suffered the loss of her husband, Christian Giesy, when he drowned in the Willapa and an abusive marriage to her late husband’s cousin, Jacob Giesy. With four children, she left the Willapa region and moved to the Aurora Colony, where she worked as a dressmaker, sewed quilts, and spent most of her life. She died in 1916.
While not a direct descendant of Christian and Emma (Wagner) Giesy, Al’s grandmother was a descendant of John Giesy, who was listed in the 1900 census as a younger brother Sebastian Giesy. Christian Giesy’s brothers included Andrew, Fred, Henry, John, Martin, Sebastian and Rudie, the one who drove Willie’s wagon.
When Rudie died in March 1895, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported a story, describing him as “one of the earliest and most prominent pioneers in the Willapa Valley.” He traveled around Cape Horn at South America’s southern tip and settled in Willapa in 1855, just in time for the Indian Wars of 1855–56.
“He was one of the leaders during the Indian wars, and Fort Willapa was built upon the site where the Giesy residence now stands,” the newspaper reported. “He was also in active service in the late civil war.”
He was buried in the Fern Hill Cemetery, one of 16 Giesys resting there, alongside his brothers and Willie Keil.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.