Again in the year 2002, were making our way around Virginia, each
issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of
electric co-op country. On this years third stop, well be...
Down Home in Dayton By Ellen K. Layman, Contributing Writer
When Leo “The Lip” Durocher said that “nice
guys finish last,” he obviously did not know about the little town of
Dayton in Virginia’s Rockingham County.
This is a place that owes its survival as a town to
the nice-ness of its people.
The town officially was only 31 years old in 1864
when an angry Union General Philip Sheridan ordered every structure in
Dayton — and everything within five miles — to be burned to the
restored Silver Lake Mill houses LDA Creations, a decorator of china and
A favorite young officer in Gen. Sheridan’s
command, Lt. John Rodgers Meigs, had been killed by Confederate scouts
near Dayton — and the general wanted to strike back. The order was given
to Lt. Col. Thomas Wildes of the 116th Ohio Infantry Regiment to carry
Col. Wildes hesitated, having been impressed by the
kindness of the townspeople. It is said that he approached Gen. Sheridan
several times, asking him to rescind the order. The general was slow to
relent, but finally Col. Wildes’ pleas were honored. The town itself was
spared, although some 28 structures nearby were destroyed on Oct. 4 and 5,
A Link to a Landmark
Lt. Meigs’ death near Dayton also gives the town a
link with one of America’s enduring landmarks. He was among the first
men buried in the very first section of Arlington National Cemetery. His
father, Montgomery Meigs, was Quartermaster General under President
Lincoln and had been a colleague of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Montgomery Meigs, embittered by his son’s death by troops commanded by a
man he once considered his friend, exacted his revenge by choosing Mrs.
Lee’s rose garden in Arlington to start a military cemetery.
The town has its own enduring landmark — another
link to another war. A 35,000-pound German cannon, captured from the
arsenal of Kaiser Wilhelm during World War I, anchors Main Street as a
tribute to the 116th Infantry Regimental Band. The band was formed with
volunteers from town, and its members saw duty in France as medics and
stretcher bearers. In recognition of Dayton as the smallest town in the
United States to muster a complete regimental unit during the war, the
U.S. government donated the cannon that since 1928 has doubled as a symbol
of pride for the townspeople and as an inviting, over-sized,
imagination-stirring plaything for the town’s children.
natural landmarks include Silver Lake, with Mole Hill in the distance.
To some, the indelible link with wars seems jarring.
Early settlers in Dayton included Mennonites who
oppose war as a tenet of their faith. Today, all three of the historic
peace churches — the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren and the
Society of Friends (Quakers) — have meeting houses here. The beautifully
tended farms of the Old Order Mennonites frame the town. Their buggies
form picturesque lines in Sunday morning traffic; the high-stepping horses
clip out a rhythm that soothes any motorist patient enough to appreciate
the slower, gentler cadence of life.
The Old Order Mennonites generally avoid the
worldliness of automobiles and electricity. Yet, conflicts with neighbors
favoring more modern lifestyles are limited. “We have a good working
relationship” between the town and the Old Order community, says Rick
Chandler, Dayton’s town manager for the past 12 years. “We have
found ways to co-exist.”
Friendly co-existence is found on another front, too.
The biggest employer in town is Cargill Turkey
Products. Having the country’s largest turkey-processing plant (in terms
of its physical facility) in a small town would seem fraught with
conflicts. And, as with any thriving agricultural endeavor, there are days
when its presence seems particularly pungent.
the home of Daniel Harrison, built in 1847, is now restored and listed as
both a Virginia and National Registered Historic Landmark.
Yet, there is pride in the turkeys sold under the
Shady Brook Farm label. The 1,400 people who work at Cargill almost equal
the town’s population of 1,500. Dayton’s budget can rely on Cargill as
a major resource — more than 88 percent of the town’s water sales go
to the turkey plant.
However, if a long-time resident of Dayton were to be
asked about Cargill, the answer could well be a blank stare. The plant
that lines the east side of Rt. 42 is still better known as Rocco — or
some might revert to the earlier name, Marval. The plant became part of
the giant Cargill firm on Aug. 27, 2001.
Even in a small town, change is constant.
What used to be Dayton High School is now the Dayton
Learning Center, an 11-year-old educational program serving about 2,000
adult learners each year. Jim
Orndoff, the center’s founding director, says the programs include
beginning literacy, English fluency, computer training, small business
development, and IMPACT, a family literacy program. A colorful playground
next to the school keeps children occupied while their parents study.
The building is rarely vacant. The Rockingham County
Public Schools’ alternative education classes are housed in the Dayton
Learning Center, and weekends are vibrant affairs with dance formats from
ballroom to contra.
What opened as Turner Ashby High School in 1956 is
now the Wilbur S. Pence Middle School, serving more than 800 students in
Grades 6, 7 and 8. The middle school is named for a long-time and deeply
respected county school superintendent whose home overlooked the school
Favorite Gathering Spots
a volunteer at the Shenandoah Valley Folk Art & Heritage Center,
positions the shuttle on a weaving loom where the late Nellie McDorman
perfected the art of rug-making.
Instead of a country store, the town’s favorite
meeting places are at the post office — there is no home mail delivery
in town — or over cinnamon rolls and rich coffee on Saturday morning at
the Dayton Farmers Market. The market, all under one roof, offers a grand
assortment of items including fresh produce, a meat market, kitchenwares,
dozens of varieties of cheese, books, toys, specialty gifts and
Dayton is home to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham
Historical Society and the Shenandoah Valley Folk Art & Heritage
Center. The Heritage Center’s permanent exhibit, “Invincible
Spirit,” traces the development of the Shenandoah Valley from
pre-historic days to the present. Favorite exhibits include one on Valley
pottery, complete with a reproduction kiln, and another on rug-weaving. An
old-time schoolroom, with desks trimmed in iron curlicues, displays
decades-old report cards and slate tablets. A wood-burning range is the
centerpiece of a not-so-modern kitchen.
An electric map in the Heritage Center’s meeting
room traces the 1862 Valley campaign of Confederate General Thomas
Charlie Pennybacker, owner of Thomas’ Restaurant and Home Bakery, slides a tray
of fresh-from-the-oven pies onto a cooling rack.
A more recent change in Dayton is the restoration of
an old mill on the banks of Silver Lake. In the building where wheat and
corn were once ground into flour and cornmeal, china and glassware now are
exquisitely decorated by LDA Creations for clients including museums,
universities and historic sites. A special line of giftware features the
Silver Lake Mill and nearby locales.
An earlier restoration project brought Fort Harrison
back to life. The stone home of Daniel Harrison was built about 1749,
during a time when the major security concern was Indian raids. An
underground passage is believed to have connected the house to a spring, a
protection against long-term assaults.
And there’s a newspaper now — the weekly Shenandoah
Journal that chronicles not just the high school sports action, but
every junior varsity and Little League contest and every school’s Honor
The things about Dayton that will never change are
the memories of long-time residents.
They recall the majesty of May Day on the lush
grounds of Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music, which operated in
Dayton from 1875 until 1960 when it moved to Winchester and today is
director of the Dayton Learning Center, shows off the old school bell that
summoned students when Dayton High School opened in 1914. The bell, which
survived a two-story fall in 1920 when the school burned, now rests in a
cradle fashioned from the bleachers from the former school’s gymnasium.
They can smile with the memory of the late Bernard
Roth advertising that his Main Street grocery had “parking for a
thousand cars — two at a time.”
They can still catch a whiff of the printer’s ink
from the Shenandoah Press and recall the decades when Jim Ruebush was the
They can admire the reproduction antiques that
Charlie Suter hand-crafted in his small shop on Mill Street.
And gratefully, they can remember, but continue to
enjoy, home-style cooking at the Thomas’ Restaurant and Home Bakery, a
Main Street landmark that locals still call “Lottie’s” — an
endearing reference to the late Lottie Thomas who ruled the restaurant and
bakery, often bringing the big serving platters and dishes to the diners
herself. And there were no better donuts than Lottie’s donuts.
“Just a Little Country Town”
Long-time Dayton Mayor Ed
Bartley reflects on the changes he’s seen in the almost 50 years
he’s held an elective office on the town council. And he still comes
back to the word “nice.” “It’s just a little country town.
Everyone attends to his own business. It’s a nice, quiet place. That’s
what makes this town special.”
And, to bring that Civil War story into the present
day: Dayton has a Meigs Lane, memorializing the fallen Union officer. It
does not have any street named Wildes to honor the man who could have told
Leo Durocher that nice guys are worth standing up for — even to an angry
The big event each year in Dayton is the Autumn
Celebration on the first Saturday in October, often referred to
locally as Dayton Days although it is only one day long. The 23rd annual
Autumn Celebration will be held Oct. 5, 2002. Crafts and novelty items are
offered for sale in booths that line Main and College streets. Civic clubs
and church groups sell homemade food items. Local talent is featured at
the entertainment venue. Crowds usually range from 15,000 to 20,000. Call
town office (540-879-9538).
Market, south of Dayton on Rt. 42. Variety of shops and food. Open 9
a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
(also known as Daniel Harrison House), North Main Street. Restored
mid-18th-century home. Free admission. Open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
from May through October. Special plant sale in late April. Christmas at
Fort Harrison held the Friday, Saturday and Sunday following Thanksgiving
A display of
Shenandoah Valley pottery at the Folk Art & Heritage Center.
Valley Folk Art & Heritage Center, High Street. Historical
exhibits, folk art collection, map of Stonewall Jackson’s famous Valley
Campaign, genealogy research library. Pick up a brochure for a
self-directed walking tour of historic Dayton. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Monday through Saturday (540-879-2616).
Mill, 2328 Silver Lake Road. Shop for fine gifts and accessories. Open
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday (540-879-3582).
Restaurant and Home Bakery, Main Street. Open for breakfast, lunch and
dinner Monday through Saturday (540-879-2181).