Salem is rich with history and culture, and one of the hubs of our historic legacy is the Willamette Heritage Center (WHC) located east of downtown, near the Amtrak Train Station on 12th Street. Salem once was a center of fabric manufacture, with several mills producing wool and linen. One of those iconic mills is the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, now the key piece of the WHC campus. Our guest, Michelle Cordova, the relatively new executive director, tells us of the history and vision of this multifaceted organization.
Although known to Salemites for many years as the Mission Mill Museum, this parklike complex of fourteen historic buildings changed its name in 2010 to better reflect its long-time partnership with the Marion County Historical Society and its mission statement of connecting generations by preserving and interpreting the full history of the Mid-Willamette Valley, not only the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill.
In describing their early beginnings, Michelle explained that in the late 1940s, proposals were made to demolish both the building that housed Oregon’s capitol at statehood and Marion County’s 80-year-old courthouse, causing many people to become concerned about the potential loss of Salem’s heritage. in 1950, the Marion County Historical Society was formed.
Led by its first president, David Duniway, the Society promoted historic preservation in Marion County as well and provided educational programs and booklets about Marion County history. In 1984 the Society purchased the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill’s old retail store and converted it into a museum. The Society's collections and archives form the core collection of the Willamette Heritage Center.
The Mission Mill Museum Association was founded in 1964 to develop an historical park to provide a “museum and public meeting space as well as an educational, cultural, historical and activity-oriented center for townspeople and tourists alike.” The association and its dedicated corps of volunteers worked tirelessly to restore and interpret the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, as well as the four historic buildings that had been relocated to this site.
The permanent and changing exhibits at WHC elaborate on what local life was like in the area during various time periods. Each of the historic buildings provide true depictions of life in their era. The changing exhibits throughout the year highlight important aspects of our history through the ensuing generations. The most current exhibit, "CSI-Salem," describes early crime-fighting in the Salem area. The recent addition of Caboose #507 and tracks, which we've highlighted in previous episodes, will be fully restored and open to the public in Summer 2020.
The WHC also provides a great resource for researchers and genealogists of all ilks in its Archives & Library, with some of the most helpful staff you might ever encounter.