Panel detail: wagon train proceeds westward.
Panel detail: Pickled Pioneer leads the wagon train westward.

The Pickled Pioneer

Field review by the editors.

Menlo, Washington

The grave of the Pickled Pioneer is on a damp, windswept hill in a place once known as New Canaan -- "The Promised Land" -- in the Willapa Valley of Washington.

New interpretive panels at Willie Keil's grave site.
Interpretive panels tell Willie Keil's story. His grave is on the hilltop near the trees.

In 1855, Wilhelm "Father" Keil was the preacher and leader of a religious commune named the Bethelites, many of them former followers of George Rapp, a prophet who'd fallen from favor for his insistence on celibacy (and promotion of mysterious angel footprints). Father Keil planned to lead several hundred Bethelites west from Bethel, Missouri, to less populated pastures along the Pacific Coast. But before the group departed, Keil's oldest son, 19-year-old Willie, fell fatally ill with malaria. Father Keil had promised Willie that he could lead the wagon train. On May 19, four days before the trip's start, Willie died.

Panel detail: at the grave site
Panel detail: the Bethelites bury the Pickled Pioneer.

Keeping his vow to his son, Father Keil dropped Willie into a metal coffin, put it in a wooden vat, filled it with about 150 gallons of 100 proof Golden Rule whiskey (a brand distilled and sold by the Bethelites), and placed it on the lead wagon, which was converted into a cross-continental hearse.

Willie Keil's grave.
Willie Keil's weathered grave marker.

Willie -- literally tanked -- led the train after all.

Father Keil's contemporary accounts of the trip are filled with tales of settlers and soldiers encountered along the way, all of them terrified of attacks by Native Americans. Yet the Bethelites apparently had no problem with any of the Indians that they met. Father Keil credited this to his friendliness and generosity -- but you have to wonder if Willie's conspicuous presence prompted the Natives to leave the wagon train of weirdos alone.

After six months of sloshing, Willie finally reached the Coast Range of western Washington, over 2,000 miles from his starting point. It became the final resting place of the Pickled Pioneer.

Today, the spot is along a sparsely populated stretch of Washington Highway 6. There's a pull-off; Willie's grave is in a tiny cemetery on the hilltop behind it. For many years a large Washington State Parks sign featured a carved relief of the wagon train, led by the wagon hearse, and the inscription, "In the evening by lamp-light, Willie was buried here November 26, 1855." The wooden sign -- so well-known that it had its own postcard -- collapsed in 2019. It was subsequently salvaged, restored, and put on display in the nearby Northwest Carriage Museum.

Sign for Tombstone Willie's Saloon.
Tombstone Willie's pays tribute to its posthumous neighbor across the highway.

The Parks Department replaced the sign with three modern interpretive panels in 2020. The triptych concludes by elevating Willie to the status of folk hero (along with Paul Bunyan and Bigfoot) and reassures visitors that "the spirit of the 'Pickled Pioneer' endures."

Spirit indeed: across the street is a saloon named Tombstone Willie's, a logical source for souvenirs, but sadly locked and deserted during our visit. A descansos fatality memorial was about 300 feet west, completing a Devil's Triangle of liquored mortality.

Westward bound.
Willie Keil was the only person to travel the entire length of the Oregon Trail while dead.

Willie's fame extended far beyond the Willapa Valley. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, a wagon train of re-enactors trekked all the way from Missouri to the West Coast. The first wagon carried a coffin in memory of the Pickled Pioneer.

The Promised Land of western Washington didn't work out for the Bethelites -- it was too wet. Leaving Willie behind, they moved south to Oregon, to a drier valley, and founded the town of Aurora. No one is pickled there.

The Pickled Pioneer

Address:
WA-6, Menlo, WA
Directions:
On the west side of WA-6, either 1.5 miles north of Menlo or 2.5 miles south of East Raymond, and just south of its intersection with Camp 1 Rd.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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:
Where Kurt Cobain Lived in a Refrigerator Box, Aberdeen, WA - 24 mi.

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