The US is a big country that was colonized and settled by countless different types of people from countless different backgrounds. Many big cities across the continent were initially settled by small groups of people moving from the opposite side of the states. Many small communities were started by single families, or by a group of only 10 or 20 people before a little society was formed in a new area. Everywhere has its own little history about the Europeans who moved there and decided to make it there home, paving the way for the town or city that stands there today. There is a small town in the SouthWest corner of Washington state with a very unique story of this type, which has lived on since the early 1800’s. This little piece of small, local history stands out among other tales of early settlements on the West Coast of the United States. This is the story of Pickled Willie.
A group of about 200 pioneers headed west from Bethel, Missouri in the 1800’s. They were joining in with the common pursuit of a new life in a greener land to the west, so they packed up what they could and planned their trip to Washington. This group named themselves the Bethelites in homage to the hometown that they were leaving behind. This isn’t an unusual tale itself, as countless groups were making the same sort of journey toward the Pacific Ocean at this time. The Bethelites were a bit of a special group, however. What makes this group of travelers stand out among the many others is their unique leader who is now known as “Pickled Willie.”
Young Willie was the son of the leader of the party, Dr. Keil. Dr. Keil was the one who came up with the idea of packing up and heading West as a group, so he was charged with planning the journey. His son Willie took a strong interest in being a part of the planning and taking a leading position on the trip itself. Willie was 19 years old when his father promised him that he could lead the trip and be in the first wagon along the way, no matter what.
This promise was put to the test when “no matter what” became an important note. Young Willie died of Malaria just days before the journey was set to begin. Luckily for Willie and for his father who refused to break his promise, the Bethelites were particularly skilled in the distillation of very strong whiskey. Dr. Keil decided to build a strong and sturdy coffin for his son, and Willie was placed into it and hauled in a wagon at the front of the group. Just as promised, Dr. Keil made sure that Willie was leading the journey, even though he was dead. Here came another trouble however, because human corpses have a tendency to rot. Dr. Keil filled his son’s coffin with their powerful whiskey as a way to preserve his body. This would ensure that young Willie’s corpse was preserved and that his body remained intact until they could make it to their destination in the west.
According to the local folk story, while the group was traveling west, they were surrounded and stopped by a group of Native Americans. The pioneers were worried that the Natives would kill them or take their goods, which may have been their original intention. However, when they demanded to see what was in the huge black box in the front wagon, Dr. Keil lifted the lid to reveal the whiskey-pickled corpse of his son. The group of Native Americans were left speechless by this sight and decided to leave instead of linger and deal with these clearly insane white people.
6 months after leaving Missouri, the group arrived in Willapa Valley in Washington State. This was their desired destination, but the climate was too cold and wet for them. The decided that this was a good place to leave the body of Willie before they headed south to a warmer region in Oregon. They buried the body of Pickled Willie in a little area near what is now Raymond, Washington. They left a marker at his grave and said their goodbyes. Pickled Willie’s grave is still there, on Highway 6 in Menlo, WA.
The story of Pickled Willie survives as a bit of local history in Pacific County Washington, and his memorial has been preserved so as to be welcoming to travelers and guests to this day.