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May-19-2022 20:15printcomments

5 Fascinating Museums Around Salem and Mid-Willamette Valley

Our past and present come together in some unusual and unexpected ways.

Deepwood Historic house
Historic Deepwood Museum & Gardens
Photo by Travel Salem

(SALEM, Ore.) - As the capital of Oregon, Salem is no stranger to history. The city and surrounding communities host a wide range of commemorative markers, key sites from Oregon’s past, and (unsurprisingly) several museums that help visitors understand the regional history.

In some cases, that history is sobering—like at the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.

In other instances, generations past are regarded with reverence and honor—such as at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. And at other points, our past and present come together in some unusual and unexpected ways.

So if you want to learn about Salem’s interesting past - and some of the unusual tales and artifacts that help illustrate the history - we’ve put together a list of fun and fascinating museums that span the Mid-Willamette Valley. Have fun exploring and learning.


The Willamette Heritage Center sits on a five-acre campus and feels less like a traditional history museum than a hub for where the past and present collide in myriad interesting ways.

In all, 14 historic structures can be found on-site, hosting a variety of permanent and rotating exhibits, a research library, event spaces, and more.

But the museum takes its mission one step further by also hosting art galleries, artist studios, and other community spaces that give the museum a vibrant energy.

Of course, the history is also worth your time: The Willamette Heritage Center hosts the 1841 Jason Lee House and Methodist Parsonage, the oldest standing wooden frame houses in the Pacific Northwest, as well as industrial artifacts, an exhibit on the region's history with winemaking, and more.

“It’s the breadth and the depth of the history that’s preserved and shared on this site,” says Kylie Pine, curator and collections manager at the Willamette Heritage Center, of what makes the museum so special.

“I’m always in awe about the past, so I think it’s interesting to step into these spaces to see how much has changed.”

The newest feature at the museum is the recent arrival of a retail outlet from Pendleton Woolen Mills, which will sell the company’s signature blankets, apparel, fabric cuts, gifts, and accessories.

In a sense, the store’s opening at the Willamette Heritage Center brings full circle a regional wool-manufacturing story that dates back to 1890, when Thomas Kay opened a woolen mill on the site of the present-day museum; in 1909, three of Kay’s grandsons would found another woolen mill, located in Eastern Oregon, that would become known as Pendleton Woolen Mills.


The Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health isn’t always the most uplifting museum you’ll visit around Salem; it’s not the flashiest; nor is it the most well-known.

But it just might be one of the most important museums found in the state of Oregon.

The OSH Museum, as it’s most commonly known, tells the stories of the people who have worked and lived at the 130-year-old Oregon State Hospital through a variety of artifacts, documents, photographs, and audio recordings. Other exhibits explore the history of mental illness and various treatments over the years.

The hospital is most famously known as the primary filming location of the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” starring Jack Nicholson.

The film was an adaptation of the eponymous book by Oregon author Ken Kesey, and several patients helped on set during the course of filming. Short film clips are shown in the museum, and props and photographs from the movie are prominently displayed.


When a stately Queen Anne Victorian home was built just south of downtown Salem in 1894, it redefined opulence for generations to come.

Wood was brought in from the East Coast, intricate details were crafted into hinges all over the estate, and the surrounding garden was developed in 1929 by noted landscape architects (and Salem residents) Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver.

When it was built, the house cost $15,000 —a princely sum when considering that the average house at that time cost just $1,000 to build.

The building’s final resident moved out in 1968, and it would eventually be converted into the Deepwood Museum & Gardens —which showcases the home, as well as artifacts from former residents and the wider Salem community.

For many visitors, the most visible and alluring sign of that opulence is the museum’s collection of 15 stained-glass windows designed by David, John, and George Povey—more famously known as the Povey Brothers.

The Povey Brothers gained acclaim in the late 1880s and early 1900s for designing intricate, colorful stained-glass windows for churches, restaurants, and other establishments throughout Oregon and across the United States.

“Povey was really considered the ‘Tiffany of the West Coast,’” says Yvonne Putze, executive director of Deepwood Museum & Gardens (which is cared for by Friends of Deepwood).

“It’s just really great craftsmanship,” she says.

And at the Deepwood Museum, there is no more beloved work of art than the one honoring the Port family, who had the house built in the first place.

The piece in question is called “The Omega Window.” It sits on a mantle above the family’s fireplace and features three full rose blooms and one rosebud—the former representing the living family members and the latter signifying its late son, whose ship was lost at sea in 1887.


For generations, the Yamhill Kalapuya people have called the Grand Ronde Valley “Chachalu,” which means “place of the burnt timbers.”

The name is a reference to a large forest fire that ripped through the valley shortly before the tribe was forced by the U.S. government onto a reservation in the mid-1800s.

Today, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which includes members of the Yamhill Kalapuya tribe, honors its past in a variety of fascinating ways at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center, which sits about 35 minutes west of Salem on Highway 18.

Broadly speaking, the museum celebrates the Tribes and Bands of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community through exhibits that eschew typical interpretive panels and diorama-like displays for cultural artifacts, wall-size photographs of important natural spaces, and more.

Visitors who want to expand their knowledge can download the Chinuk Wawa mobile app (available for iPhone and Android devices), which was created by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde community; the app helps users learn the Chinuk Wawa language through quizzes, games, songs, and stories.


"Eccentric," "eclectic," "oddball"—these are all words you'll hear to describe the collection at the Museum of Natural History at Mount Angel Abbey, which was founded in 1882 by a group of Benedictine monks from Engelberg, Switzerland.

And all those descriptors definitely fit. But even so, they don't quite describe the curious artifacts on display at the museum, which was designed in part to use what it calls "little" and "apparently trivial" items to teach grander lessons and fascinate visitors.

Those items include American Civil War memorabilia, a stuffed cow that was born with eight legs, several taxidermy animals (including bison and a grizzly bear), and the museum's most famous artifact: the world’s largest porcine hairball, taken from a pig at the abbey. (A few smaller hairballs are also displayed for reference.)

Source: Travel Salem (Oregon)


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