Road Journals Blog—Driving through Salem (near Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, which I wrote about for a Via feature) I stumbled across a fascinating emblem of the city’s past: The Mission Mill Museum—formerly the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill.
Perched alongside a rushing stream, the massive, barn-red wood buildings are an unusual sight in the middle of a city. I swung in to investigate, and the afternoon was suddenly spoken for.
With its abundance of fresh water and sheep-friendly land, Oregon was a center of the Western textile industry in the mid- to late-1800s. One would be hard pressed to see this today, with only one mill—Pendleton Woolen Mills , launched in 1909 by the sons of Thomas Kay 's eldest daughter—in operation.
The Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, designated an American Treasure by the National Park Service, produced wool blankets and flannel for gold miners starting in 1889, and wove the fabric used to make soldiers’ uniforms in World Wars I and II. Closed in 1962, the mill was subsequently transformed into a working museum.
The creaky, wooden Mill Building still houses the massive machinery that once wove fabrics. I have a loom myself, but these are very different—supersized things that take up an entire room with rows of gargantuan spools. As we toured the space, we felt like Lilliputians visiting a giant’s workspace.
With the flip of a switch our guide turned on the loom, and the ancient beast clattered to life with a rattling whir. (Until recently the loom was powered by the river, but when the turbine broke a couple years back it was wired to run on electricity. The mill is currently raising funds to fix the turbine.)
A shuttle flew back and forth so fast my eyes couldn’t focus on it, and a mechanical carding machine made fast work of raw wool.
The Mill Building is among a cluster of 14 renovated historic buildings, and contains a card room, a spinning room, and several homes. Two of the homes, dating from the 1840s, are believed to be the oldest wooden buildings in Oregon. Filled with original machinery and, in the case of the houses, period furnishings, the buildings give visitors the sensation that the workers have just stepped out for a break.
Today the mill is a living museum, with spinners and weavers of the Salem Fiberarts Guild  operating the Textile Learning Center , on the fourth floor of the Mill Building. Exhibits, classes and special events keep the historic mill busy year-round.
While the tour was fascinating, the setting itself is visually stunning, with the vivid red structures grouped alongside a placid millpond and a chattering brook that dashes under bridges and disappears beneath the Mill Building. Flower gardens, broad green lawns, and picnic tables offer spots to enjoy a bit of downtime.
Instead of sitting on the benches, I lay on the grass near the pond. I listened to the nearby chattering of the creek and watched ducks dabbling, creating little ringlets of water that spread outward—much the same way this one small stream caused a ripple effect in an entire region’s fortunes.
Leslie Forsberg wrote about cideries in the Pacific Northwest for the March/April 2011 Oregon edition  of Via.
This blog post was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.