|The first woolen mill in Salem was the Willamette
Woolen Mill, built near the confluence of the Willamette River
and North Mill Creek. The history of the company begins in 1847
when Joseph Watt, one of Salem's early settlers, returned to
the Midwest and persuaded his family to emigrate. Three hundred
thirty of the 400 sheep the family drove westward survived,
and Watt joined with John Minto, Dan Waldo, and Reynolds to
form the company. The mill was to be built wherever the first
$9,000 worth of shares could be obtained. Salem put up the additional
$2,000 to its already committed $7,000 and won out over Polk
and Yamhill counties. John D. Boon donated the land, and the
rights to bring Santiam River water from Stayton through the
Salem Ditch were negotiated.
Joseph Watt was a skilled carpenter and supervised construction
of the building. R. E. Pratt from Worcester, Massachusetts
was asked to help select the equipment and then come out and
run the mill. A gala ball was held November 19, 1857 preceding
the installation of machinery in the building. They had dinner,
dancing, speeches, and fired a cannon to announce the raising
of the flood gates to allow the first water through. It was
the first power-operated woolen mill on the Pacific Coast.
The first blanket woven was auctioned for $250, and bore a
label that read "Hardtimes." This turned out to
be prophetic. In 1858 sales did not go well, payrolls were
not met, the company was deeply in debt and there was talk
of shutting it down. Pratt pulled it through by employing
such unconventional practices as using barter as a method
of payment and issuing factory scrip for pay. Bad management
ultimately did wreck the business, and a fire May 3, 1875
destroyed it. The mill had been Salem's leading industry for
almost twenty years and employed 100 people.
Salem did not have another woolen mill until Thomas Lister
Kay, Squire Farrar, and C. P. Bishop founded the Thomas Kay
Woolen Mill. In 1889 they responded to an offer from Salem
civic and financial leaders to subsidize building a mill.
A site was chosen at the earlier location of the Pioneer Oil
Company near Twelfth and State streets in Salem. Kay traveled
to England to see what improvements had been made in technology
and the equipment for the new mill was ordered to his specifications.
Three fire hydrants were even installed to guard against fire
and the mill boasted the first overhead sprinkler system in
an entirely wood structure.
Mr. Kay had learned his skills in his teens in Leeds, England,
and applied much of what he learned there to the new Salem
mill. The old-country skills, passed along to new workers
through apprenticeship programs, soon showed up in our newly
founded mills with competently trained textile workers and
supervisors. The more competent workers took over as managers
and left the routine work to others. Thus the operations at
our mills reflected not only the technology but also the managerial
style of the old country. At $4.50 a day, the boss dyer was
the highest paid mill worker . Three members of the Bishop
family, who later started Pendleton Woolens, worked at the
Kay Mill, and one of them opened a store on the premises in
1891. The Salem Woolen Mills Store became the leading men's
clothing store in Salem.
The mill burned in 1895 at a loss of $90,000, $55,000 of
it Kay's own money. The fire department's operations were
criticized. At a large public meeting, Kay was given a vote
of confidence to rebuild and most of the necessary subsidy
The present mill building was designed by Walter Pugh the
following year and was patterned after another Kay mill which
the company had acquired at Waterloo in Linn County two years
earlier. Rock from the old mill was used in making the two-foot
thick stone and concrete foundation walls nine feet high.
The brick walls above the first floor are seventeen inches
thick, and above the second, twelve inches thick. The immense
floor timbers are 60 feet long with planks and flooring on
top of that.
The mill, with 88 employees, produced the first bolt of worsted
goods west of the Mississippi in November 1896, and had twenty-eight
looms operating by 1915. In the early days the mill concentrated
on making mackinaws and flannels while the Waterloo mill made
bed and camp blankets. In the late 1940s, seventy- five percent
of their raw wool was purchased directly from Willamette Valley
farmers and their 115 employees produced finished suiting,
flannels, cashmeres, tweed and blankets.
The mill operated on the gravity principle, as did many other
mills. The first procedures were done on the third floor.
Then, the wool was dropped through a trapdoor to the second
floor for the next step, then dropped through to the main
floor where the finishing was done.
The entire operation was run by water power from the millrace
which can be seen entering the mill at a higher level. Through
a system of wheels, gears, belts and turbines, water ran the
machines. The flow of the water was regulated by gates at
the entry so the machines ran at an even, steady pace which
was crucial to the quality of the wool. A generator was installed
in the 1940s and surplus electricity is sold back to Portland
General Electric. The water seen rushing down the incline
outside is simply excess and joins the other water later.
The scope of the operation was second only to that of the
mill in Oregon City on the entire West coast. It is a unique
example in the Pacific Northwest of the industrial type plant
based on English and Atlantic seaboard models. It is one of
a few plants in North America able to demonstrate an entire
manufacturing process by direct drive water power.
The mill was under continuous ownership and management of
the Kay family until it was sold to the Mission Mill Museum
Association for $160,000 in 1965, after having been closed
for three years. The Mission Mill Association has restored
it to show authentic manufacturing processes from the time,
and to depict the industrialization of America.
Written by Joan Marie "Toni" Meyering
Capital Journal, January 6, 1951.
Lomax, Alfred L. "Pioneer Woolen Mills in Oregon,"
Oregon Historical Quarterly, 30/2, (June 1929): 147-160.
Nomination papers for the National Register of Historic Places
Inventory by Elizabeth Walton Potter.
Robertson, James R. "A Pioneer Captain of Industry,"
Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, IV/3, 1903, 162-167.
Salzmann, Joan Marie "Toni", "Salem's Creeks",
Marion County History, School Days II, 14, 1983-84, 3-9.
"Thomas Kay Woolen Mill Goes Back 60 Years", Capital
Journal, 20 January, 1949.
Thomas Kay Woolen Mill Museum: an Experience in History (brochure).