Willamette Heritage Center

Part of our love of traveling is the opportunity it gives us to learn about new places and their history!  While we were in Salem, we were able to learn about the Willamette Valley’s rich heritage (Oregon Trail buffs here, so it was right up our alley!).

Off topic, but did you know that nearly everyone who has never visited the Willamette Valley area says Willamette wrong?
the mill building at the Wilamette Heritage CenterAt home, everyone knows that Helena is all short vowel sounds, but people from elsewhere often pronounce it hell-een-uh.  Or how about Gettysburg – most people say get-eez-burg, but when you visit, everyone there pronounces it Get-iss-berg.  Willamette has the same problem – so many of us pronounce it incorrectly, saying will-uh-met; but here in Salem, they have a saying to help you get it right, and when you hear it, it will stick with you forever (this is probably the only time that you will ever hear me swear 😉 ).  You will never forget how to say Willamette. lol.  The area even has shirts for sale to help people get it.  The saying is a simple one…”Willamette damnit.”  Seems like an odd saying – I didn’t get it at first. lol.  But around here, Willamette is pronounced will-am-it with the emphasis on am… basically – take the d off damnit and put ‘will’ in its place and NOW you are pronouncing Willamette right.  They won’t have to coach you when you visit (like they had to me!).
#You’reWelcome  😉

Back to our destination – we were in the Will-am-it 😉 Valley, staying in Salem, for a week and a half.  During that time, we spent a weekend in town at a nice private rv park, and also stayed out where we were volunteering.  We had a fun afternoon at the Salem Riverfront Carousel, went swimming and climbing at the Salem KROC Center, and we also learned about this end-of-the-Oregon-Trail valley through a road schooling field trip to the Willamette Heritage Center…Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

The Willamette Heritage Center is a 5 acre property that is a showcase for some of the oldest structures in the state of Oregon!  It is also home to the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, constructed in 1895, and in use through 1964 (Thomas Kay’s decendants own the Pendleton Woolen Mill today).

The center consists of several separate buildings.  The main brick colored building is the start of an interesting history lesson in Oregon’s diverse heritage!  The WHC has 2 different levels of exploration available to the visitor: you can visit the outside grounds for free, or, for a nominal fee, you can go into the museum, special exhibits, and historical homes.

This is where you tour through the center will begin – at the small museum area in the main building…

 Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

…where you can watch a 15 minute video, which is a historical overview of the area.  I love short educational pieces like that!  I get so much more out of visiting a location after having a quick history lesson, than I do from not knowing anything about it before getting there!

After the video, and now armed with some knowledge of the center, it was time to explore!
The grounds really are beautiful, and we had a cool, but sunny afternoon to check them out!

some of the buildings at the

In the small building to the right of the dye house in the photo above, there is a working model of the water powered turbine system that runs the woolen mill.   The kids pushed a button, and the system began to run; they were able to see how all the gears and pistons worked together to power the big machinery that they would soon be seeing inside of the mill building.

Mill display at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

There were a couple of other educational displays that they checked out.  This was a then vs. now exhibit…

hands-on learning display at the Willamette Heritage Center

Next we were off to the historic buildings.  This is the parsonage; built in 1841, it predates the height of use of the 2200 mile long Oregon Trail in bringing settlers to the Willamette Valley.
Each building has a theme for its exhibits and educational aspect.  The parsonage covers early valley residents, focusing on the Kalapuya Indians as well as historic preservation.

 Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Some of the buildings, mainly those that include exhibits with historical artifacts, are locked and only accessible by key.  When you purchase your tickets, the staff will give your group a key that allows you entrance to these historic buildings to look at their artifacts and exhibits…

entering the locked displays at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Each of the buildings has A LOT of information included in its exhibits!  I love stuff like that!  I would be happy to skim/read each and every paragraph, but my littles are not quite that patient!  Lucky for me, each building also had some hands-on activity to keep the little ones entertained.each building at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR has hands-on children's activitiesThe historic preservation educational area included some articles, photos, and even touch screens with which to explore local architecture, and the little kids got to practice their own ‘architecture’ with wooden blocks…  :)

building blocks in the parsonage at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Emma has graduated past the block stage, and is all about reading everything she can.  If there is a touch screen involved, all the better!  (do other people’s kids have the same fascination with touch screens that mine do???)

interactive touch screen activities at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Next, in the nearby Lee house which was also built in 1841, we learned about the Methodist mission that was located near this location, and which became the hub that the city of Salem, Oregon grew around.

Here I realized that it might be time for us to spend a winter in Montana.  Emma was checking out this beaver pelt, and asked what it was.  I was glad the boys were off volunteering as they might have freaked out on me had they heard her not know what animal it was from!   And yes, I did find the trapping section of the Lee House exhibits to be quite interesting since our boys trapped quite a bit before we started fulltime RVing.
A couple of the other things that you will learn about in the Lee House, besides the trapping trade, are the history of the Methodist Mission, and about the missionary families (4 at once) that lived in this home.

learning about beaver trapping in the Willamette valley

The Thomas Kay Woolen Mill building is such a pretty building!  There are large parts of it open to exhibit, and several hands-on activities for the kids.

The mill building at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

While some of the oldest, historic buildings are not handicap accessible due to their age, the mill building is.  When you visit the mill building, your self-guided tour will begin on the second floor (both stairs and elevator available), where the fleece to wool process is documented through equipment exhibits and educational displays.woolen mill equipment at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR
This is where the mill workers would punch their time cards on their way into the mill in the morning, and on their way out in the evening…

 Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Each step in the process is documented through easy to read displays, and often with hands-on activities…

a woolen mill carding display at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Emma really liked the wool carding activities!  She was just getting the hang of it. lol.

hands-on exhibit at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

I enjoyed learning how the combing process was done on the large machinery; the littles were happy to practice carding and stripping the wool, so I was free to read, and they were content to listen to all my ‘did you know…s’, because their hands were busy!

practicing carding wool and stripping it and the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

empty spools waiting to be spooled with thread…

 Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

Back downstairs, the main floor in the woolen mill continues to showcase the wool making process – everything from finding imperfections in the wool and fixing them, to pulling, which is the process of controlled felting of the wool to knit its fibers together and create a stronger fabric.

The large wooden vats on the floor of the soap mixing area of the mill were used to hand mix huge batches batches of soap for the mill to use to wash their fabric before it was ready to be sold to the public…

woolen mill display at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

After our tour of the woolen mill’s equipment and display areas, we headed back up to the second floor to visit the current special exhibit; From the Sheep’s Back to Yours: Pendleton Blankets an Oregon Tradition.  Here we learned about the history of the Pendleton Woolen Mill, and their production process today.

Special Pendleton Blanket exhibit at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

In the Pendleton exhibit, there were beautiful wool blankets on display, as well as a short video that showed the wool making process as it is done now in the Pendleton factory.  Even the little girls thought it was interesting.  And since it was ‘tv’, Caleb sat and watched it too! lol.
Did you know that the Pendleton Mill, which is located in Washington, processes 8 THOUSAND pounds (4 tons) of wool each day?  I found the process of drying the finished and washed wool, 500# at a time,  in huge microwaves, interesting!

Just in front of the woolen mill is a small stream with a walking bridge over it.  There were ducks swimming below, and a feed dispenser nearby ($.25)…

feeding the ducks at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

The kids loved the room to roam outside, and really enjoyed feeding the ducks!

After several hours spent exploring the WHC, here are our recommendations for planning a visit:

~If you want to learn about the history of the Salem area, this is the place to do it!
~Yes, the nominal fee to tour the houses and special exhibits is worth it (if you like educational/historical).  As of 11/14, adult admission is $6, seniors $5, and 6-17 are $3.  5 and under are free!
~Kid friendly?  While this is not, by definition, a ‘children’s museum’, it is pretty child friendly.  My littles didn’t beg to go back, but there were enough hands-on activities that they were content to let me read and explore.   And this was more my visit – yes, they learned about Willamette Valley history and wool making, and no they weren’t forever asking ‘can we leave now'; personally, it was right up my alley (Emma and I could have spent several more hours here, so it totally depends on kids’ ages and interests).  The kids; their favorite part was the hands-on activities, particularly the Oregon Trail computer games that were in the 1847 Boon House!  😉playing The Oregon Trail at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OREmma, being a little older (9), was more into it than the younger kids – she liked the varied displays, photos, and that there were so many different topics covered in each house (she could pick what interested her to read about).  But yes, she also loved The Oregon Trail game – we used to have this on the computer in ‘our old house’ and the bigs remember playing it.  Guess it’s time to find a copy again so the littles can too!

playing The Oregon Trail in the Willamette Valley at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, ORMore recs:

~Take a guided tour!  Our visit was rather last minute as we couldn’t really plan ahead at the time we were visiting Salem, so we did a self-guided tour on a quiet Monday afternoon.  Plan your visit on the right days tho, and the center has docents on hand; there are live weaving demonstrations on the 4th floor of the woolen mill every Tues., Thurs., and Fri. from 10 to 3.  Also, there are knowledgeable volunteers that can give you a guided tour of the grounds on Wed., Thurs., and Fridays from 10 to 3.   The tours are on demand, so you don’t have to plan far in advance for your visit date.|

~Set aside 2 hours to visit the center – more if you like to read a lot of the displays, and even more if you like to shop…

Part of the entrance building, where you purchase museum admissions, and watch the introductory movie, is actually full of several fun and inviting shops!!!  I loved <3 this one… and I don’t even knit! (yet.)

dyed wool shop at the  Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

There is also a cafe in the building that is open M-F from 10 to 3.  They serve sandwiches and salads (most menu items are priced around $8) and coffees.  Between lunch, touring the museum and historic buildings, and then shopping, a fun afternoon awaits at the Mission Mill!
The stores, and the cafe, are open to the public, and you do not have to be visiting the museum to check them out.

 Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, OR

The Willamette Heritage Center is a great place to visit to learn about Salem, Oregon’s rich textile and missions history!  The center offers fun, hands-on classes for both adults, and older children (usually 10 and up) several times a month, and are posted on their website and on facebook: if you want to keep up on what’s going on with and at the center, consider ‘liking’ them on their fb page.

Lilla Rose

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