Wagon Train hearse on sign.
Wagon Train hearse on sign.

Pickled Pioneer

Field review by the editors.

Menlo, Washington

The grave of the Pickled Pioneer is on a lonely hill in a place once known as New Canaan, "The Promised Land."

Willie Keil's grave site.
Willie Keil's grave site.

In 1855 Dr. William Keil, leader of a religious commune called the Bethelites, planned to lead his group west from Bethel, Missouri, to greener pastures along the Pacific coast. But just before the group departed, Keil's son, 19-year-old Willie, came down with malaria. Dr. Keil had promised Willie he could lead the wagon train. On May 19, four days before the trip's start, Willie died.

Keeping his vow to his son, Dr. Keil dropped Willie into a lead-lined coffin, filled it with 100 proof Golden Rule whiskey (a brand distilled and traded by the Bethelites), sealed it, and placed it on the lead wagon, which was draped in black and converted to a cross-continental hearse.

Willie led the train after all.

According to accounts of the Bethelites' Oregon Trail journey, Willie helped hold off a number of Indian attacks. West of Fort Kearney, a Sioux party intercepted the wagon train just to see the Pickled Pioneer. They left peacefully. It happened over and over as the 250 Bethelites traversed dangerous Indian lands. Near Fort Laramie an Indian war party approached the expedition and gestured at the large black box in the lead wagon. Willie's dad cracked open the coffin and let the braves have a gander at the dead man floating in spirits. Curiosity satisfied, they departed with nary a scalp.

Tombstone Willie's Saloon.

The Bethelites finally reached western Washington, and secured a final resting place for the Pickled Pioneer.

Today, the grave site is along a sparsely populated stretch of State Route 6. There's a pulloff for the marker; Willie's grave is on the hill behind it. The wooden Heritage Marker features a carved relief of the wagon train, led by the wagon hearse. "In the evening by lamp-light, Willie was buried here November 26, 1855."

Across the street is an establishment named Tombstone Willie's Saloon, the logical source for postcards and souvenirs, sadly locked and deserted during our visit. A descansos fatality memorial is about 300 feet west, completing a Devil's Triangle of liquored mortality.

The promised land of western Washington didn't work out for the Bethelites -- it was too wet. They moved south to Oregon, to a drier valley, and founded the town of Aurora. No one is pickled there.

Pickled Pioneer

Hwy. 6, Menlo, WA
Hwy. 6 between Chehalis and Raymond, east of Raymond.
RA Rates:
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Northwest Carriage MuseumNorthwest Carriage Museum, Raymond, WA - 4 mi.
Willapa Seaport MuseumWillapa Seaport Museum, Raymond, WA - 4 mi.
Town of Metal PeopleTown of Metal People, Raymond, WA - 4 mi.
In the region:
Charlie Choker, Big Mascot, Aberdeen, WA - 22 mi.

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August 11, 2020

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