From its very beginning, a southern Rockingham County, Va. town originally known as “Rifetown” may have had a slight identity issue, starting in 1828 with the name on a new post office sign reportedly identifying the town as “Rifeville.”
Then in 1832, the Virginia General Assembly renamed the town to Dayton.
Meanwhile, a Revolutionary War veteran who had ratified the New Jersey constitution in 1787, Johnathan Dayton, had a town named after him, but his town was the well-known Dayton, Ohio. With no discernible connection with Dayton, Virginia.
Whatever the name, one thing about the spot that had quickly attracted early settlers was the inviting confluence of spring-fed creeks and land just waiting to be farmed.
It also had captured the attention of Daniel Harrison, brother of nearby Harrisonburg, Va. founder Thomas Harrison. He too must have seen so much potential in the abundant springs and fertile land along a road that in the early 19th century would become the Harrisonburg-Warm Springs Turnpike — now US Rt. 42.
In 1749, Harrison built a sturdy, stone house at the north end of the new settlement. Fort Harrison, as it is called now, is one of the oldest houses in the Shenandoah Valley.
The house became a fort during the French and Indian War and it remained in the Harrison Family until 1821. Fully restored in 1978, it‘s now one of Dayton‘s main historic attractions.
By 1864, parts of Rockingham County had been devastated by Union troops as the Civil War tide continued to turn against the South. That year, Northern solders were fanning out through the rich Valley hinterlands, burning mills and farms that were supplying food to the Confederate Army.
Dayton was located close to the southern edge of the areas that were destroyed. But the entire town had been ordered to be totally burned to the ground after a Union officer was shot by a Confederate scout on the town outskirts. However a Union Army officer named Lt. Col. Thomas F. Wildes appealed the order to U.S. Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan. Sheridan rescinded the order at the last moment.
It’s just that Wildes had found the people of Dayton to be so very friendly and likable. As torches were prepared and townspeople shuttled house possessions in to nearby fields, Wildes was beseeching Sheridan on their behalf, securing the last-minute reprieve that saved the town.
And from that point Dayton town life recovered and has continued through the 20th and now into the 21st century. It may not have grown very much over the years, but it now seems to go about its business in an easygoing way. Perhaps the best way to experience the town’s “old Valley” vibe is on foot, following the Dayton walking tour.
Dayton’s small size is right for a walking tour. Each street seems to yield its own bit of architectural eye candy. The town’s historically diverse roles as an early farm settlement, wartime battleground and later as an agricultural and educational center seem to overlay one other. Traces of each of these periods are everywhere.
For example, Dayton once was home to the biggest sheet music printing house in Virginia. By the 1840s, the grandsons of the Singers Glen, Va. gospel “shape note” music publishing pioneer Joseph Funk had moved their grandfather’s business to nearby Dayton. Funk had been publishing music and training music teachers in Singers Glen since 1816.
In Dayton, the family’s music publishing business had been renamed Ruebush, Kieffer & Company, and music teacher training was still part of the operation. By the late 1800s, music instruction began to take on a life of its own. Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music college buildings began appearing on town streets. Despite the times and the prevailing culture, SCCM was co-ed.
In the 1960s Shenandoah Conservatory packed up and moved to Winchester, Va. — today’s Shenandoah University. But many of the original, turn-of-the-century college buildings can still be found on the streets of Dayton.
These buildings are surrounded by gingerbread and tidy frame homes that had housed music professors and students. The Ruebush, Kieffer & Company printing office is still there, one stop on the walking tour, along with other period mercantile buildings and shops, and historic churches.
Dayton street-wandering undoubtedly will lead to what is now called the “Historic Triangle” at the north end of town. The western point of the triangle is formed by spring-fed Silver Lake and its accompanying Silver Lake Mill. The water-powered mill that’s there now is one that had been rebuilt after an earlier one was burned.
The Silver Lake Mill still sports a sturdy steel water wheel, but today it’s a gift shop and visitor attraction. The grassy banks that surround Silver Lake are a favorite for nature-lovers, fishermen and photographers.
The water that spills out of Silver Lake converges with Cooks Creek, which flows through the Historic Triangle and forms kind of a boundary along the north and east sides of town.
The eastern point of the Historic Triangle is marked by the Daniel Harrison House, which is now open to the public and hosts special programs. A June 18th Colonial Trades Fair at Fort Harrison will feature 1700s craft demonstrations and period music.
The Heritage Museum offers several permanent exhibitions that interpret the cultural, genealogical, Civil War and industrial history of the central Shenandoah Valley, as well as a changing exhibition gallery.
“Our facility was built to blend in with the community,” explains Penny Imeson, the museum’s executive director. “And so it’s a nice surprise when people go inside.”
The museum is also home to the Electric Map, a wall-sized 1862 Civil War battle map with tiny, winking lights that are programmed to interpret various army maneuvers throughout the region. The map had been created for the Civil War Centennial, it’s now over 50 years old.
The Heritage Museum is offering summer activities, such as a family-friendly scavenger hunt on the last Saturday on each of the summer months, along with a special portrait exhibit that is officially open on June 18th. The exhibit includes charcoal sketches, paintings, miniatures, and other items, portraits of people who were important to a local family, or in the community.
Imeson says that, along with walking tours, museum visits and special summertime activities, simply stopping to visit in the Town of Dayton can be its own experience.
“Most visitors hope to get a glimpse of a buggy,” Imeson says. It’s not unusual to see and hear the horse-drawn carriages clop their way through town streets. Mennonites were one group of European settlers who moved into the western and southwestern part of Rockingham County, and today they remain a visible part of the still-vibrant local agricultural community.
In many ways, dropping in to see small Shenandoah Valley towns like Dayton may be the best way to experience the Valley. They are laid-back and authentic.
It’s possible to get closer to local people in these lesser-known places and perhaps get a better feel for why these old families choose to call the place home, generation after generation.
In fact, as a visitor destination, the attractive quality of Dayton may be more about what it isn’t than what it is.
“It’s easy to get to, easy to park, it’s walkable,” Imeson says. A trip itinerary can be as simple as arriving to lay out a picnic lunch at the edge of Silver Lake.
“Dayton has its history, but it also is wonderfully abundant with beautiful nature,” she adds. Beyond scenic appeal, the Dayton Market on Rt. 42 has long been a popular shopping destination. And Dayton is always just a short hop from the City of Harrisonburg.
Although time has marched on since Rifeville became Dayton, the relatively unchanging town and landscape, the springs and streams, and the mountain skyline, provide a homey feeling of permanence.
“I’m enamored of it,” Imeson says. “I just feel quite privileged to be able to work here. And spend my days in Dayton.”
History resources: Ohio History Central; Town of Dayton, Va.; City of Harrisonburg, Va., Fort Harrison House; Smith Creek Music, Silver Lake Mill and www.archive.org. Special thanks to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society and The Heritage Museum.
Visit us on Facebook.
The Silver Lake Mill was built in 1822, in Dayton, Virginia, a few miles south of the City of Harrisonburg. The mill pond there is a favorite subject for photographers. Photo: Hank Zimmerman
Located in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, the town of Dayton is one of the oldest settled communities in Rockingham County. Dayton is surrounded by prime agricultural farmland, mainly owned and farmed by members of the Old Order Mennonite community.
Dayton is home to a national historic registered landmark, The Daniel Harrison House, also known as Fort Harrison, is the oldest house in Dayton and is listed as a national historic landmark.
The Dayton Farmers Market offers shopping at 20 specialty shops featuring a wide variety of merchandise, including locally-made items. Nearby is the Silver Lake Mill, a landmark structure that now houses a store that offers mill-themed products, and collectibles.
Dayton’s oldest and most attended event is the Dayton Autumn Celebration, also known as “Dayton Days,” an arts and crafts festival held annually on the first Saturday in October. The festival attracts an estimated 20,000 attendees annually and is known for handmade quilts and food.