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Threading time

January 20, 2018 GMT

“I’ll ask you to stand back behind this glass wall, here,” advises volunteer docent Bill Perin as we hover in a corner on the second floor of the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, part of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem. “It’s gonna get really loud. And it’s just much safer back there.”

After fiddling with unlocking the power box, checking to see if the shuttle is in position, Perin flicks the switch to make this 1940s-era Crompton and Knowles automatic power loom start to run. After the machine warms up for a few seconds, he pulls back on two levers, and it’s as if he’s released a caged animal, gnashing teeth and all.

It takes a moment to focus, to see what workings are going on amid all the noise and speed of just one machine, an evenly gulping, hungry beast.

The shuttle, housing the spindle of weft thread, flies like a rocket through the shed, or gap, between the warp threads. Heddles rise and fall above it all, opening the shed for the shuttle, then closing it as the beater bar pulls the weft thread down into place. Back and forth, the quick rhythm is hypnotic, its force intimidating. Such a machine would produce about 70 to 75 yards of cloth a day, not counting the time it would take to set up the machine, we later learn from curator and collections manager Kylie Pine.

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When Perin turns off the loom, quiet resumes.

“Imagine 18 of these all going at the same time,” he says as we gaze down the long wood-floored room and picture the floor-to-ceiling belts of earlier machinery humming, the looms clacking. “It would be deafening in here.”

In tune with industry

The loom is not original to the mill, which Thomas Lister Kay opened in Salem in 1889. The famous Pendleton Woolen Mill donated the loom to the museum in 1973. When powered up, it serves as a visual and auditory reminder of the thrills and the dangers of industrial progress.

Much of the original machinery at the Heritage Center gives a lasting impression of what the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill would have been like during its heydey; it produced fine woolen blankets and fabric for more than 70 years, first providing wool cloth through the Alaska Gold Rush, then making fabric and blankets for the U.S. Army, before it closed in 1962 when synthetic fabrics became all the rage.

The mill employed many Salem-area families for years, including women and children. In addition to weaving, other jobs included sorting, scouring, picking, dyeing, carding, dressing, washing and drying. A fire that destroyed the mill in 1895 underscores its importance to the community when the workers rebuilt it to be fully operational in only six months.

As Perin pauses beside a Johnson and Bassett bobbin winding machine, he tells us that boys were likely to work here, boys as young as 8 years old, pulling 10-hour shifts, six days a week, and getting paid 5 cents an hour.

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“There would be one boy at each spool,” Perin explains. “The boys would be standing back there, watching these strings. If one broke, they would duck under here, grab both ends, tie it together and duck back here before that arm came back. There’s no sensor on this machine that knows there’s a kid in there.”

Just to imagine young boys hopping about, at the mercy of machinery, is enough to make us shudder in the here and now. The horrific details of injuries in the textile industry are well documented throughout both British and American industrial history.

“Early mills, in the 1700s, were gruesome things,” Perin concurs.

Thanks to the mill museum and its exhibits on the first and second floors, we feel the scope of this water-powered textile operation. Its the only mill museum of its kind west of Missouri and its designated an American Treasure by the National Park Service.

But there is more to see beyond its doors.

On a mission

Other buildings within the Heritage Center grounds tell the story of Methodist missionaries who came to the Mid-Willamette Valley in the 1840s to spread Christianity to the Oregon Territory and the Kalapuya people. Four structures — the Jason Lee House (1841), the Methodist Parsonage (1841), the John D. Boon House (1847), and the Pleasant Grove Church (1858) — all were moved to this site from their original valley locations in coordination between the Mission Mill Museum Association and the Marion County Historical Society, which merged in 2010 to form the Willamette Heritage Center.

These buildings have their own stories. For example, the Jason Lee House and the parsonage are the oldest standing wooden frame houses in the Pacific Northwest. Also, the Lee House was set down backwards when brought to the museum site. “We weren’t going to fix that,” Perin quips.

Inside each building, exhibits share the history of the mission started by Jason Lee, the mission families, the Kalapuya, the Oregon Trail, as well as early industry and agriculture in the area. And for the technologically inclined, the mill complex has one of the few water-powered turbines in the Pacific Northwest that’s still capable of generating electricity from the adjacent millrace.

One could spend hours here, reading, learning, exploring, taking it all in. “I’ve been here for 10 years, and I’m still finding stuff,” Perin admits.

Finding stuff, indeed. Like the trap doors between floors inside the mill — blink and you might walk right over them. Through these, the woven cloth would be dropped down from one inspection point on the second floor to another on the first floor before it was finished.

And like the toy rat that looks real enough perched on a railing to give us pause. “Kids love to find that,” Perin says with a twinkle in his eye.

Outside, the imposing Thomas Kay Woolen Mill draws up our eyes to admire its red and white painted exterior set against the blue sky.

“It’s truly one of a kind,” says curator Pine in passing. “We are lucky to share its heritage.”

Follow Christine on Twitter @CSherkRG. Email christine.sherk@registerguard.com.