Thomas Kay Woolen Mill

Water still flows down the old mill race, passing directly underneath the dye house.  Thomas Kay Woolen Mill.  Photo: KGilb.

Water still flows down the old mill race, passing directly underneath the dye house. Thomas Kay Woolen Mill. Photo: KGilb.

The iconic red brick building that housed the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill in Salem, OR, for almost 65 years was built in 1896. Inside, employee timecards hang neatly next to the time clock, bundles of wool still wait to be picked and sorted through, battered metal pails sit within reach of crusty concrete soap vats, and the finishing station is fully stocked with bobbins, spools of thread, and satin edging. All of which makes for a very interesting factory tour. But that’s not the best part . . .

The best part of visiting the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill is that inside the musty, creaky old building are many of the massive machines original to the mill!

What does that mean to a visitor touring the once state-of-the-art factory? Well, since the water is still flowing down the mill race, the machines still operate much as they did before the mill closed down in 1959. Everywhere you go, there are wheels, gears, chain drives, drive shafts, and wide belts in motion. These, in turn, drive the machines–mechanical monsters that clank and clatter noisily right before your eyes.

We started our tour at the machine shop where the millwright would have worked hard to fashion all kinds of parts to keep the mill running. In addition to a blacksmith shop, there’s quite a collection of belt-driven drills, lathes, and planers on display.

Then we walked through a picker house that was as cold as a tomb–even on a bright sunny afternoon. With no heat and very little light, I can’t imagine how anyone could actually work there in the dead of winter. But they did!

From there, we simply followed the wool as it would have passed through a succession of industrial age machinery: wool pickers, carding machines, spoolers, looms, fullers, etc. All of them powered by water.

In fact, the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill is one of the few plants in North America where you can still see an entire manufacturing process based solely on direct drive water power. Though the main drive shaft (which runs the entire length of the building) is hidden from view, be sure to check out the crown gears and the turbine on display.

This is a remarkable tour for young and old alike! At the height of production, the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill employed over 100 highly skilled textile workers. Photographs of the employees, both hard at work and at company functions, are prominently displayed throughout the building.

The mill is part of the Willamette Heritage Center¬†complex. It’s located at 1313 Mill Street SE in Salem, OR. They’re open Monday-Saturday from 10am to 5pm, closed on Sundays and holidays. Admission price is quite reasonable and there’s ample parking out front. Plus, there’s a cafe on site that serves soup, sandwiches, salads, ice cream, and Italian sodas.

For more information, a map, and detailed directions, please check please check the Willamette Heritage Center website.

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