Driving down Legion Way towards downtown Olympia on most evenings, you may notice the strings of colorful lights inside the second story of the building at the corner of Legion and Cherry Street. In the daytime, you will spot the freshly painted sign Olympia Knitting Mills on its side. Welcome to the historic Olympia Knitting Mills building, now home to Fish Brewing Company and The Loft on Cherry events and performance space. The building, listed on the National Register, has seen an amazing diversity of uses over its 90 year history, and many have literally left their mark on its walls.
Olympia Knitting Mills began its life as the Washington Knitting Mills in Seattle, changing its name to the Olympia Knitting Mills in 1909 and moving to downtown Olympia. The company was organized by Sol Myers, a former Seattle resident; upon incorporation in Olympia, Myers drew in several prominent local businessmen, including downtown merchants Mitchel Harris and George Mottman, as investors.
After incorporation in Olympia, the mill rapidly expanded and by 1911 boasted 21 knitting machines and 38 employees and outgrowing its original space. Local historian Shanna Stevenson notes that many employees were women, some of them officers in the union organized at the Mills.
In 1911, the Carlyon Fill created several new blocks in and around downtown Olympia, and eliminated the Swantown Slough, which had divided downtown from the east side of Olympia. Completion of the Fill allowed the mill to move to its present location in 1913. Workers would have been able to take the Olympia Light and Power trolley from as far away as West Olympia and Tumwater, down Fourth Avenue to Cherry Street, and walk the short two blocks to the mill. After work, they could take in a show at the Olympia Opera House just a couple of blocks away, or stroll through the paths and gardens of Sylvester Park during their lunch breaks.
The Mills produced annual catalogues, featuring photographs by local photographer Vibert Jeffers who used local citizens as models, including children and teenagers sporting letter sweaters, sportswear, mittens and coats. One regular child model, shown at left, was the son of local physician Nathaniel Redpath. Another was Olympia High School student athlete Alvin Crowne, shown here wearing an Olympia High School football sweater. (The State Capitol Museum collection at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma has several of these catalogues; descriptions and, in some cases, scanned images of the photos in the catalogues, as well as the Kay Darling pictures described below are available for viewing on line.)
Olympia Knitting Mills shipped its products all over the world, as far away as China.
During World War I, with materials in short supply, the factory languished, but then resumed full production in the 1920s. The company produced the Wil-White brand of swimsuit, rivaling Portland’s Jantzen label. Olympia High School student Kay Darling produced a series of dazzling watercolors displaying the rich colors and variety of styles available. This was an era where swimming as a recreational activity was very popular, with huge indoor “natatoria” (swimming pools) in many towns and cities; and the suits were in national demand.
In 1929 the current two-story side of the U-shaped complex was added extending between Jefferson and Cherry Street along Legion Way. The building has tall bay windows along the long (Legion) side of the building at both levels, which provided ample daylighting for workers at their machinery. The one-story office annex, designed by famed architect Joseph Wohleb, was built around the same time.
The building did not remain vacant for long. During World War II, the space was used to manufacture aircraft parts and later used to manufacture jigs for plywood patches.
In the late 1940s, “serious” manufacturing gave way to fun, as the upstairs space started being used as an entertainment venue. According to local chronicler Matthew Green,
“By the 1940s, the second floor of the building, with its vast 6,500 square-foot open space and hardwood floor, had become a teenage dance hall. Known as the Bear’s Den, it hosted proms and other events for Olympia High School (the only high school in Olympia at the time).
“The dancers had to, of course, paint their names for posterity. ‘Dobbsie,’ ‘Spud,’ ‘Johnny L.,’ and ‘Macky’ are just a few of the many who made their mark, literally, on the walls, crossbeams, pipes, and anywhere else there was space to write. Other students preferred to paint pictures – of bears, cartoon ducks, dancing teens, and one cool dude standing next to a jukebox.
“[Loft on Cherry Manager Tim] Smith has found names with associated dates from 1941 through 1949. The freshman of the Class of 1950 are also represented, though apparently they never got to dance there as seniors. By 1950, the Bear’s Den was gone.”
In the 1980s, music again rang out from the second story, as legendary “K” records founder Calvin Johnson made the space into a recording studio, complete with outdoor sounds filtering in and adding a special local character to the recordings. Kurt Cobain, Beck and others were regular visitors, even sleeping in the space overnight from time to time. Matthew Green continues:
“Like the Bear’s Den, K Records is memorialized on the walls, in the form of a large K within a shield (the record company logo) and the names of people who played or worked there. Or celebrated their wedding there: “Jay T + Nikki Jan 1 2002” commemorates the occasion for local artist Nikki McClure and still-husband Jay T. Scott.”
In the early 1990s, Fish Tale Brewing Company started up a small brewery operation across the street from the Olympia Knitting Mills building and became almost an overnight success. Soon, the company purchased the Knitting Mills building and used the downstairs space for storage and brewing. But the upstairs space was unused, until Tim Smith, having recently left a job at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, came along in 2006 and found the space vacant. He persuaded Fish Brewing to allow him to lease out the space, at reduced rates, for local groups. Today the space is rented out almost nightly, providing regular practice space for such organizations as Samba Olywa, event opportunities for nonprofit organizations, and parties. The original floor, graffiti, and water powered elevator (now no longer functional) are still in place.
Recently, Fish has notified the community that it plans to remove the original second floor, in order to expand its storage capabilities in the building. Along with several other local organizations, the Olympia Historical Society’s membership voted at its annual meeting to let the company know that it has appreciated Fish Tale’s generosity in making the space available for arts events, as well as providing precious local access to an important slice of local history; and that it hopes the space may continue to be made available.
Historical photographs by special arrangement with Washington State Historical Society (click on a photo for a hyperlink to larger view at WSHS website); Samba Olywa practice photo and “hobo” graffiti courtesy of the author. Quotes from Matthew Green article by permission.