As you drive through the streets of Dayton the imposing buildings with their columned façades are one clue that this place was once a bustling college town. Education has played a large part in the history of this unique town in rural Rockingham County, but its history goes back to before the college arrived.
One of the first European settlers in the Dayton area was Daniel Harrison, a member of the family who established the town of Harrisonburg. In 1748 Harrison built a stone house near Cooks Creek. In the early 18th century, the Shenandoah Valley was the frontier of the Virginia colony and Harrison’s house also served as a fort to protect against Native American attacks and featured an underground tunnel that led to a nearby stream.
The area around Harrison’s home became known as “Rifetown” after local landowner Daniel Rife. In the 1820s Rife dammed up a local creek to power a mill. The body of water that formed behind the dam became known as Silver Lake.
The town developed around a road known as the Warm Springs-Harrisonburg Turnpike (now known as U.S. 42) and its series of inns and taverns catered to travelers passing through. The town was officially established in 1833 and given the name Dayton for unknown reasons. It was incorporated in 1852.
During the Civil War the area around Dayton experienced the wrath of the Federal army with barns and mills, including the one at Silver Lake, being burned. In one of the most famous episodes of the town’s history General Sheridan ordered the town burned in retaliation for one of his officers being killed by a sniper near the town. The intercession of a Union officer saved the town from destruction.
After the war the town spared from the flames recovered quickly with the opening of both a buggy factory and a piano factory. In 1875 it became the home to Shenandoah Seminary. The school would later become Shenandoah College and add a music conservatory program in the 1930s. The college wasn’t the only musical institution in town. In 1878 The Ruebush-Keiffer Publishing Company relocated to Dayton from the nearby village of Singers Glen and became the largest music printer in the state by the turn of the century.
The college would leave its mark on Dayton in many ways, most visibly in the town’s architecture. A series of buildings, a gymnasium, dormitories and academic halls are still standing, along with more subtle brick homes that served as professor’s homes. In 1960 the college and conservatory moved from Dayton to Winchester where it would later become Shenandoah University.
In the decades since the college’s departure the town has changed from a bustling college town to a small town in a rural agrarian community The town, which currently has about 1,500 residents, is administered by a town council headed by a mayor who works with a town manager.
The other most visible aspect of Dayton today is the local Old Order Mennonite culture. A conservative sect of German Anabaptists the Mennonites bring their distinctive dress and lifestyle to the Dayton area. Owning and working at businesses throughout the town and they can be seen driving down the streets in their horse drawn carriages.
Dayton continues to be a center of learning for the local community. The former Dayton High School has been transformed into the Dayton Learning Center, an adult education facility. The Wilbur S. Pence Middle School, a public county school, is also located within the town’s boundary. It is also home to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society which houses a museum and local historical records.
Like in the days of the turnpike Dayton continues to draw travelers. Today they visit the current mill that sits beside Silver Lake, rebuilt after the Civil War and now home to a custom glassmaker, and the Dayton Farmers Market, a retail center that features local foods, arts and crafts. The town’s original residence, Daniel Harrison’s stone house, is still standing and is open to the public. Dayton has found new life after its college town days and continues to hold its unique place in the local community.
- Date established: Area first settled around 1750. Town incorporated in 1852.
- Current population: 1,500
- Physical size: 0.81 square miles
- Police force: seven officers
- Largest local employer: Cargill Claim to fame: Birthplace of Shenandoah College (now Shenandoah University)