Sellwoods woolen mills an early local industry
On May 2nd, 1902, a major celebration was held in the firemen's hall of Sellwood - for the official opening of the community's first wool factory, the Portland Woolen Mills.
While there wasn't a parade of people lining the street, or any of the cheering and waving of hankies associated with civic pageantry, the local business association (or the Sellwood Board of Trade, as it was called) certainly was anxious for a manufacturing plant to settle in the area.
Sellwood was still considered a small community by Portland city leaders, and the Sellwood merchants saw the start of a big industry as a unique opportunity to attract new homebuilders, and believed that it would be crucial to local economic growth.
William P. Olds accepted the challenge presented to him by the Sellwood Board, and carpenters were called in to begin the process of building the warehouses and other structures needed for the new Portland Woolen Mills.
The factory was located east of Sellwood, near the present day intersection of S.E. Umatilla Street and McLoughlin Boulevard. Joseph M. Nickum had donated a large structure near the banks of Johnson Creek for use as a foundry, and the heirs of George Wills - the original donation landowner, and founder of the early town of Willsburg - offered two acres of land near the tracks of the Southern Pacific Lines for manufactured goods to be shipped out of the country.
While fifty men were hired to handle the loading, lifting and transporting the bales of wool and maintaining the equipment, female workers were especially sought after. Mr. Olds placed an ad in the local newspapers enthusiastically announcing that the company was looking to 'hire over 150 hands from Sellwood, where intelligent and self-respecting girls will seek employment near home.'
However the initial success of the Portland Woolen Mills was short-lived; a devastating fire five years later on the property caused such destruction that a discouraged William P. Olds decided it would be more profitable and sensible to rebuild elsewhere. Enticed by land made available to him by the citizens of St. Johns, Olds relocated the Portland Woolen Mills near the St Johns Ferry Landing, where easier access to the river and railways appeared to provide a greater opportunity for his business ventures.
The vacated land and structures left behind at Sellwood after the exodus of the Portland Woolen Mills were purchased by Thomas Ross, who operated the Ross Wool and Scouring Company. At that time, Oregon only had two small scouring plants - in Pendleton and the The Dalles.
Untreated wool was shipped back east by train where it was scoured and washed, then shipped back to the west Coast ready to be manufactured into finished items. Ross hoped to capitalize on this local scouring shortage by building his own Scouring Plant.
But the scouring plant and processing center closed only a couple of years later, unable to compete with the low cost of the wool coming from factories In Germany, which sold at a cheaper price to American garment makers.
John Young, an experienced millworker from back east, believed that he could succeed where Ross had failed. Young once worked alongside railroad and transportation magnate Henry Villard, and in 1910 he started up his own woolen mills company - the Multnomah Mohair Mills - and what better place to build his factories, than the abandoned Thomas Ross Scouring Plant on Johnson Creek?
His confidence, like that of his predecessors in enterprise there, was misplaced. His business met the same fate; the high tariff imposed on wool exports left his company unprofitable, and the Multnomah Mohair Mills soon fizzled ou and closed down by 1916.
The business leaders of Sellwood again found themselves needing a competent business owner. But, it wasn't until the start of the First World War that they found the right man - Roy T. Bishop.
The Federal government of the time was in dire need of uniforms for the armed forces, and Roy had the necessary experience working in his family's business, Pendleton Woolen Mills. Born in Crawsford, Oregon, in 1881, Roy had amassed an impressive background and considerable knowledge about the textile industry. His grandfather, Thomas Kay, operated the first Woolen Mill in Salem, and Roy worked alongside his father, Charles Bishop, at both of his retail clothing shops in Crawsford and Salem.
Roy attended the Philadelphia Textile School, and gained experience in the large manufacturing mill centers on the East Coast for eight years. Returning to Oregon, he partnered with his parents and two brothers - Chauncey and Clarence Bishop - to purchase a struggling fabric mill in Pendleton which manufactured Indian robes and blankets.
In 1909, this small-town industry, known locally as the Pendleton Woolen Mills, began its journey to grow into the textile giant now famous for producing the world-renowned Pendleton blankets and sporting outerwear. (In the 1960's, the renowned surf band The Beach Boys were so enamored of Pendleton products that they initially named their group 'The Pendle Tones'.)
Leaving family and friends back in Pendleton, Roy Bishop purchased the existing buildings, and the water rights near the once-vibrant little town of Willsburg, and replaced the mohair machinery with his new worsted woolen machinery. The marked the beginnings of the Oregon Worsted Company.
Demand was great for worsted wool yarn and fabrics, following the shortages due to WWI, and Roy had his spinning and weaving machines up and running, with over 300 people working three shifts around the clock.
From the history of Oregon Worsted posted on its Internet website, we learn that the company was the first mill on this side of the Rockies using a fine long-staple wool taken from sheep raised locally, and manufactured using innovations pioneered by Roy Bishop.
Many of Carl Jantzen's early knitted bathing suits were made from worsted yarn, and when the Second World War came, Oregon Worsted was again called upon to supply wool blankets to the troops.
A few years later, the company was specializing in producing a fabric whipcord found in durable outdoor clothing that was sought out by auto mechanics, lumberjacks, and firemen, while also being one of the largest manufacturers of necktie lining in the country. The 'Mill End Store' was opened in 1940 as a surplus shop, and today is one of the nation's leading retailers in selling quality fabrics, notions, and yarns to the public.
Roy's sons, William and Thomas, continued the Bishop family tradition of becoming an integral part of Oregon Worsted Company. 'I was only fourteen years old when I first worked at the mill,' remarked Bill Bishop. 'I took the streetcar down to 17th, and walked down Umatilla and across the Johnson Creek Bridge to get there.'
Bill worked for over 22 years at the plant, taking a furlough only when he went to college, and then later when he fought in the Second World War.
In 1950, when Roy Bishop passed away, the reins of the company were passed to his son Thomas B. Bishop. By 1970, Oregon Worsted found itself struggling to compete with other woolen mills, even while cheap wool imitations were being allowed into the country, as the U.S. government removed expensive tariffs and restrictions on imports.
The Oregon Worsted equipment and machinery were becoming worn down and outdated, and given the decline of the domestic industry, the Board members made the tough decision to shut down the factories and lay off their production line workers.
However, with the factory gone, the Oregon Worsted Company nonetheless today continues the Bishop tradition of selling quality wool - now, through its Mill End Store, located beside the bustling lanes of traffic on McLoughlin Boulevard at Milport Street, where once factories and mills graced the eastern side of Sellwood, and where a town called Willsburg once stood.