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Flax and the Oregon Landscape

April 21, 2020

Each year, Oregon Heritage highlights outstanding research done by students at Oregon universities through the Oregon Heritage Fellowship program. This year, three fellows were selected for their thoughtful inquiry of Oregon’s past. Enjoy a preview of original research here. Final papers will be published on the Oregon Heritage Fellowship web page in June.

By: Georgia Reid, 2020 Oregon Heritage Fellow, Undergraduate Student in Anthropology and Sociology at Lewis & Clark College

Just south of Canby stands what’s left of one of the last operational fiber-flax processing mills in Oregon, built in 1936. Rumor has it that it was the last to close its operations in 1962, though I still haven’t found any definitive records or evidence that say so. To my total surprise, when I visited to peer through the windows, late in 2019, fiber was still strung through the machines—sixty-year old threads weaving past and present in the old mill building.

Like those threads, fiber-flax has maintained a peculiar presence even through its absence in the Willamette Valley. Going back to its ancestral roots and traditions in the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, and Europe, the domesticated flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) has held something of a fairy tale quality.

Between 1865 and 1962, Oregon gained a reputation for growing high-quality fiber plants, causing what newspapers called “flax fever” to spread through the valley. A few prominent women with wealth and political ties especially propelled the industry’s development: they petitioned government sponsorship at multiple key junctures. This government funding was the only support to consistently keep the fiber-flax industry afloat throughout the decades. Fiber-flax, a labor-intensive crop at the time, was almost never profitable. Still, float parades, theatrical performances and dances were held in the streets of Salem, celebrating flax. Children dressed up as flax angels, women were crowned flax queens, and a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Angel was even crowned “Father of Flax”.

Woman posing while operating beaming machine, preparing warp yarn for the loom, circa early 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland Public Schools Collection

Trailing post-World War II industry collapse, multiple attempts at reviving commercial flax-to-linen production in Oregon and throughout North America have occurred since the mid-1990s. My research goal was to document and interpret this contemporary history.

I never expected to end up telling a ghost story—the sort of tale, we all know, where the reality of what’s present is thickly filled, even haunted, by the past. Social theorist Avery Gordon writes that a ghost “is often a case of inarticulate experiences…a case of modernity’s violence and wounds, and a case of the haunting reminder of the complex social relations in which we live” (Gordon 1997, 25). 

Flax straw, circa early 1930s, at a processing mill. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland Public Schools Collection

What Gordon means is that ghosts and haunting show where there is overlap between times, and especially where there is emotional overlap—where grief, hope, longing, remembrance thread past with present. The efforts to re-establish a regional economy of flax-to-linen production register a longing for the past to inform the future of fiber and clothing manufacturing as slightly less synthetic, globalized, and polluting of ecological relations.

As much as it has been my job to offer critique, something of the swaying fields of blue flax has captivated my imagination and my heart. How could we weave the best of the past into our lives today?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Colette Kimball permalink
    April 21, 2020 12:44 pm

    Nicely written! The author is a gifted storyteller, bridging past and present.

  2. May 25, 2020 6:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Georgia Reid.

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