Although flax was introduced in Oregon as early as 1844,
it wasn't until 1867 that the first mill was built in Salem
by Joseph Holman. Holman's Pioneer Oil Works began operation
that year at the present site of the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill
on 12th Street. Oil was expressed from the flaxseed, and the
by-products were returned to the growers and used for cattle
feed. The tow, or flax fiber, was used for upholstery. The
business became unprofitable because of lack of a consistent
supply of flaxseed and soon closed. Flax grown in other areas
of the state won bronze medals at the Philadelphia Exposition
in 1876 and the Paris Exposition of 1900.
In 1902, Mr. Eugene Bosse, who was from Belgium and grew up
in the flax-fiber manufacturing business, came to Salem at
the request of a large linen trust in the East. After completing
some experiments, he concluded that Valley-grown flax was
equal to that grown anywhere in the world, including Belgium,
Ireland, and Russia. The trust was not pleased with his conclusion,
and he soon severed his connection with them.
He demonstrated to local farmers that there was more money
in raising flax than wheat or grain, interested investors
in his efforts, and secured the lease of a farm near the State
Hospi tal in Salem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture supplied
him with seed from Russia, Belgium, and Holland. In 1903,
a USDA botanist judged local fiber to be of better quality
than that grown in the Mississippi Valley, and that the soil
here would produce fiber comparable to that imported from
Mr. Bosse lost thousands of dollars worth of machinery and
crops in the following years from fires which were set at
his barns and storage sheds. The Sheriff felt that, rather
than being a strike at Mr. Bosse personally, the fires were
meant to cripple the budding flax industry and discourage
others from attempting such an enterprise. The linen trust
in the East was believed to be behind both the fires and other
earlier efforts to thwart the Oregon flax industry.
In 1915, a large-scale flax plant was begun at the State Penitentiary
to give employment to idle inmates at the prison, and use
their manpower to develop a crop and industry which would
help Oregon prosper. The plant would also make available processing
and marketing facilities for local growers, and provide leadership
in the development of the industry. Unfortunately, they also
suffered disastrous fires which wiped out their gains.
Other linen manufacturers in the Salem area in the 1920s included
Lord and Wallace and Oregon Fibre Flax in Turner, Oregon Fibre
Flax at 132 North Liberty, Miles Linen Company at 2150 Fairgrounds
Road, and the Oregon Linen Mills at 1465 Madison. World War
II brought an increased demand as production in Europe was
interrupted, and more flax plants were developed up and down
the Willamette Valley.
Oregon Flax Textiles, a division of National Automotive Fibres,
had a West Salem plant which manufactured a rug product. They
used flax tow which had, in previous years, been burned. Although
Oregon was the only state in the Union that grew fiber flax
commercially, most of it was used for such unglamorous products
as ropes, twines, thread, nets, fishing tackle, mops, rugs
and toweling, and defense materials.
Developments at Oregon State University reduced the harvesting
and processing costs of flax, but a main obstacle in competing
with foreign grown fiber still lay in mixing the short, or
tangled, tow fibers with the long fiber flax, and in grading
the flax properly. Joan Patterson of Oregon State University
began experimenting in the late 1940s with linen woven in
combination with other fabrics. Instead of being done with
the long fiber flax she, too, used the tow which had formerly
been burned as waste.
Her hand-loomed samples were applicable to power loom production,
and samples from the Oregon Worsted Company were featured
in magazines like House Beautiful, House and Garden, Modern
Bride, Better Living, and Good Housekeeping after she previewed
them in New York City in 1951. In 1952, National Automotive
Fibers decided to con- centrate its entire home rugs operation
at the Salem plant in West Salem.
Between the linen mill, the flax textile mills, and the woolen
mills, Salem in 1952 was rapidly becoming known as a textile
center. Despite these hopeful signs, acreage harvested in
1952 was down, and plants throughout the Willamette Valley
were closing. The following year, a drop in the price of flax
fiber threatened operations at the penitentiary, which employed
250 convicts and, in 1954, they were the only plant still
in operation in Salem. The availability of lower-priced foreign
fiber and the labor-intensive production methods were key
factors in the decline.
Just getting the flax from the field to the mill was a lengthy
process. After the August harvest, loads of bundled flax straw
were pitched off the farmer's truck and stacked in a storage
shed. The flax was later hauled out and each bundle untied,
then put through a de-seeding machine, then retied and hauled
back to storage until the following summer. Then it was hauled
out again, pitched into a "retting" tank where bacterial
action loosed the fibers from the woody parts of the plant.
Then it was hauled into the field and stacked in wigwams to
dry. Once it was dry a year after harvesting, it was hand-tied
again and stored until winter, when the moisture content would
be higher and it could be "scutched." It did not
matter in the 1950s that there were machines available to
automate the process - no one could afford them. There was
a brief period of hope in the late 1950s, but the new companies
were not successful, and another period in Salem's history
came to an end.
Researched and written by Joan Marie "Toni" Meyering
"Flax: A Growing Industry in Oregon" (brochure).
Meyering, Joan Marie "Toni". Unpublished paper.