The Willamette Heritage Center is spread out over five acres in central Salem, just blocks from the Capitol. It includes an array of historic houses around a grassy square beside a woolen mill complex. Inside these buildings are exhibits about Salem’s history, a restaurant, and delightful shops. Find an expansive Pendleton store, a millinery, and shops devoted to yarn and children’s STEM learning. There are even artist studios that are open occasionally. The fourth floor of the mill is a center for weaving, where anyone can take classes. Families can spend an enjoyable afternoon taking in the historical sites, eating, and looking around the shops at the Willamette Heritage Center.

Willamette Heritage Center
The entrance to the complex, which used to be the warehouse building for the woolen mill. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

Willamette Heritage Center

The Willamette Heritage Center has yearly events geared toward the whole family. Many people know the Center for their annual Christmas extravaganza, Magic at the Mill. The event includes an enormous light display, Christmas crafts, Santa, Christmas performances, and decorations in all of the historic buildings. Other yearly events include free fun for families, including a drive-through Halloween trick-or-treat experience and a Sheep to Shawl event highlighting wool processing (along with shearing cute sheep) at the historic woolen mill.

In most of the buildings at the site, extensive exhibits tell the story of the mid-Willamette Valley. Different areas explore topics, from the culture of the Kalapuya people to the arrival of the white settlers and the development of early Oregon (including wool production). In addition to written plaques, the buildings also have artifacts. Some rooms are set up as they would have been when inhabited. Others have cases with displays, including archeological discoveries from the site and Indigenous baskets.

Willamette Heritage Center
A view of the historic Jason Lee House and the Dye House in the Mill Complex. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

Jason Lee House

The Heritage Center includes buildings tied to the city’s origins, including Jason Lee’s house. The building is one of the oldest wooden frame structures in the Pacific Northwest. Jason Lee looms large in the history of Salem and the origins of Oregon. He founded the city and Willamette University and his story is explored in depth in the exhibit in the house.

Lee, a native of Quebec, wandered around New England in his teens until being called to the ministry. From the beginning, Lee believed his calling was to convert the Native Americans. When the Methodist Episcopal church began planning a small mission to the Flathead Indians, they chose Lee to lead it. Other than the Hudson’s Bay outpost at the mouth of the Columbia River, there were few white people in what became the Oregon Territory. Lee and his party arrived in the Willamette Valley to stay in 1834. The following year they established a school for Native children. The overall effect of the Lee mission on the tribes of the Willamette Valley was disastrous. They brought diseases the Native Americans had no natural immunity to, and by 1842 the Indigenous population of the Willamette Valley had plummeted to a fraction of its previous population.

Lee was determined to continue despite the odds. He wanted to make the settlement more permanent, successfully bringing two more groups of reinforcements to help him. Lee then began turning his attention toward the U.S. annexation of the territory. He traveled to the East Coast trying to generate support and ended up dying there. At this point, historians estimate that there were less than 50 white men (and potential voters) in Oregon. His vision was instrumental in bringing white settlers to the Willamette Valley. Those settlers then pushed for eventual statehood. In addition to the houses, there is a church and a parsonage from these early years of settlement in the Marion County area.

Willamette Heritage Center
The woolen mill and warehouse, with the mill stream running between them. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen

Thomas Kay Woolen Mill

The Thomas Kay Woolen Mill dominates the Willamette Heritage Center, including historical exhibits, a fiber studio on the fourth floor, and multi-use areas used for various events during the year. The story of the mill and how it functioned take up the first two floors, showing visitors how woolen goods were produced. The mill was founded in 1889 and operated for 70 years until it closed in the early 1960s. The Pendleton Woolen Mill, Oregon’s iconic woolen mill, was founded and run by descendants of Thomas Kay, and Pendleton products are for sale at the center.

The Mill Building is the site of the rotating historical exhibits produced by the center. One recent exhibit examined Salem’s Chinatown and the Chinese population dating back to the mid-1800s. In addition to historical photos and plaques discussing the history, all of the exhibits include many artifacts, from games to clothing and other personal memorabilia. Additional displays have included a look at early musical listening in Salem and the history of Mid-Valley Baseball. Though the exhibit area is small, they include a great deal of information that isn’t shared elsewhere. For anyone interested in the region’s history, the Willamette Heritage Center is the place to start.

Willamette Heritage Center
1313 Mill Street SE, Suite 200, Salem

Willamette Heritage Center
The Pendleton Store is the central shop in the warehouse, and carries a variety of blankets, sweaters, and Oregon-related products. Photo credit: Mollie Nouwen
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