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How a Pickled Pioneer Ended Up in Pacific County


In 1855, a band of Native Americans descended upon a group of pioneers making their way along the legendary Oregon Trail. The pioneers feared for their scalps. Then, the leader of the war party pointed at the large black box at the front of the wagon train. Dr. William Keil, the man responsible for leading this group of pioneers to their Promised Land, solemnly lifted the lid.

Whatever they were expecting, the contents of the box certainly weren’t it. There were no provisions. No riches. No keepsakes.

Instead, they found a pickled pioneer.

Yes, you read right.

Pickled. Pioneer.

100 Proof Whiskey and a Promise

So who were these crazy pioneers transporting a pickled boy across the nation? And why was he leading the wagon train?

They called themselves the Bethalites and were on their way to Washington from Bethel, Missouri. They were a passionately religious group who happened to distill the finest 100 proof Golden Rule whiskey.

Their leader, Dr. Keil, wanted to take them to greener, cooler pastures in the west. His son, Willie, dedicated himself fully to the idea and practiced driving a three oxen team. He became so good at it that his father promised he could lead the wagon train west.

But then Willie, only 19, fell ill with malaria. He made his father promise that, no matter how sick he was, he could still lead the group of over 200 Bethalites to their Promised Land.

Unfortunately, Willie died four days before their departure date.

Keeping his promise, Dr. Keil filled his son’s lead-lined coffin with the Bethalites’ Golden Rule whiskey and put the hearse at the front of the wagon train.

When Indian war parties saw Pickled Willie sloshing around in the coffin, they went on their way.

Willie Gets Left Behind

They arrived in Willapa Valley on a November day six months after leaving Missouri. There, by lantern light, they laid Willie to rest in what is now Menlo, WA.

There was only one problem.

Though their Promised Land was certainly green, it was also very wet. The Bethalites decided to move south to Oregon where they founded the town of Aurora, leaving behind Willie.

Willie’s grave remains to this day.

So as you’re driving along Highway 101 in Pacific County, slow down and take a short detour toward Menlo. You’ll find a heritage marker and his grave about 6 miles east of Raymond on Highway 6.

Once there, be sure to say, “Cheers to Willie!”, and remember the Pickled Pioneer that saved the Bethalities’ scalps on more than one occasion.

If you make the stop, let us know with #CheersToPickledWillie.

Other stops on 101 in Pacific County…

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