MENLO — The story all starts with a heritage marker collapsing from disrepair on a turnout on SR 6 across the highway from Tombstone Willie’s in Menlo, in Pacific County. Citizens had been trying to contact people from State Parks to repair or replace the marker for some time. The marker told a short version of the very interesting story of how Willie Keil’s gravesite, which sits high on the hill above the highway, came to be.
Keil was born Jan. 12, 1836, in Bethel, Missouri. His father, Dr. William Keil, was the leader of a religious sect known at the Bethelites. In 1855 they decided to come west to find their promised land. Willie was just 19 at the time and dedicated to the idea. He learned to drive a three-ox team and was so good at it he was given the honor of driving the number one wagon. But when it was time to leave, Willie fell ill with malaria. He was afraid he would be left behind so he made his father promise that no matter how ill he was he would make the trip. Four days before the date of departure Willie died, May 19, 1855.
Dr. Keil, remembering the promise to his son, departed for the promised land with Willie in a sturdy, wooden coffin lined with lead. A load of 100 proof whiskey was poured into the coffin around Willie, the lid was nailed down and it was placed in the number one wagon. He was finally laid to rest in Willapa County on Dec. 26, 1855.
This story has long been of interest to the tourists traveling through Pacific County, but without the heritage marker the area would be nothing more than another turnout.
So local folks contacted Department of Parks and Recreation and asked them to take a look at the site and requested a new marker and repairs be made to the surrounding area.
A meeting, hosted by Northwest Carriage Museum Director Laurie Bowman, was then held at the Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond on April 19 for Parks to get a vision of what the area residents wanted and how to intermingle the site with artwork similar to the metal statues in Raymond.
One of the main problems is that Parks does not have a lot of funding to work with. Its vision is to place a metal horse and wagon sculpture in the turnout to accompany a three-sign interpretive center. Then, when more money becomes available they would like to add a shelter with a single picnic table and a crosswalk across SR 6 with an asphalt walkway from the Rails to Trails going to the cross walk.
Willapa Valley School Superintendent Nancy Morris said the students at Willapa Valley are building a Welcome to Viking Country sign that turned out well and she suggested that it could be one of Willapa Valley High School student’s senior project and to save the state some money.
Long-time resident and retired Willapa Valley School Board member Rex Hutchins mentioned to the group from Parks that he wanted them to understand there are three separate communities in the area, with three separate personalities, Willapa Valley, Raymond and South Bend.
Much of the meeting was about raising money, with Parks officials saying there is money for “phase one,” which may take from six months to a year for design completion. Phase one includes a three-sign interpretive area and nothing more. Parks officials agreed they would like to use local artists in forming the signage.
Then phase two will include the other aspects mentioned above.
Hutchins also wanted to make it clear to Parks that the area is very damp and drainage problems need to be addressed, along with sturdy fencing to keep the cows in their fields.
Bowman, from the Northwest Carriage Museum, asked what had happened to the old sign, mentioning the beautiful carving of a wagon train across the top. She asked if it was still available and if so perhaps this part of the old sign could be restored. She was told Parks would find the old sign, take a look at it and get back to her.
Parks officials told the group they did not have a long-term plan for the total Kiel area but they do for the Rails to Trails, and perhaps with community support they could be brought together.
On a follow up meeting April 24, Park Exhibit Development Coordinator Sam Wotipka said the next steps are to work with Southwest Region Planner Michael Hankinson to refine and detail the phase one plan, providing a new ADA accessible exhibit space with three interpretive panels, getting in touch with Willapa Valley School Superintendent Nancy Morris to discuss the potential to involve Willapa Valley High School students in pieces of this project and having State Parks Manager Janet Shonk discuss with Bowman the potential to transfer the old sign.