The Town of Dayton is one of the oldest settled communities in Rockingham County, and is the County’s second oldest incorporated town. The Dayton area was first settled in the mid 1740s, when because of the fertile land and abundance of fresh spring water, settlers located along Cook’s Creek.
Daniel Harrison (c. 1702-1770) came into the Shenandoah Valley from Delaware in 1737 with his entire family. After settling initially in what is now the northeastern part of Rockingham County, Daniel Harrison moved in 1745 to the area of Cook’s Creek and about 1748 built his stone house on a rise above the Creek.
The village grew as farming families who traced their roots to England, Scotland and Ireland arrived. By the 1780s, Mennonite families began settling in this lush, fertile valley and added much to the cultural make-up of Dayton.
Another family living near Harrison was that of Daniel Rife. Rife had a log cabin in the area of the present college building and the original name given to the town was his: Rifetown or Rifesville. A post office under the latter name was established July 24, 1832. However, the following year on March 6, 1833, the Virginia Legislature passed an act providing that a tract of land of not more than thirty-five acres, the property of Daniel Rife and others, be established as a town by the name of Dayton. Just why the town was renamed has never been determined. Jonathan Dayton, who ratified the Constitution in New Jersey in 1787, went west and bought or traded land with the Indians along the Ohio River. The city named after him in Ohio is, of course, large and well-known. No direct connection is known between this small town in Virginia and Jonathan Dayton or the city in Ohio.
Dayton with its twenty-six houses was incorporated May 20, 1852, soon after the completion of the Warm Spring-Harrisonburg Turnpike. Dayton was incorporated again in March 1880 because of continued growth. The town government was enlarged from a Mayor and trustees to a Mayor and Council, and a Town Sergeant and Clerk were appointed.
The town prospered, although it was seriously threatened during the Civil War. In 1864, one of Union General Sheridan’s officers was killed by a Confederate scout between Dayton and Harrisonburg. Sheridan, as a reprisal, ordered all structures within five miles burned. Lt. Col. Thomas F. Wildes of the 116th Ohio had been ordered to guard the grist mills against smuggling to Confederate troops. When Wildes received the order to burn the town, he delayed execution and sent a messenger to General Sheridan, pleading with him and telling of the kindness of the people of Dayton. Meanwhile, the Dayton residents removed their possessions to the fields. Dense smoke rising from burning farmhouses and barns could be seen. Just before Dayton homes were to be torched, the countermanding order arrived.
Dayton was a cultural center for many years. In 1878, the publishing firm, first established by Joseph Funk in Singers Glen, was moved to Dayton by his grandsons. The Ruebush-Kieffer Printing and Publishing Company was the largest publisher in Virginia at the turn of the century, specializing in music.
The Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music (now Shenandoah University) was organized in 1875 under the leadership of Rev. A.P. Funkhouser. This institution was a major factor in the life of Dayton until 1960 when it moved to Winchester. College Street earned its name from the school and many of the buildings along this avenue served as part of the campus.
At left, the 116th Infantry Band appears in formation in France. The band was organized at Shenandoah College under the direction of Prof. W. H. Ruebush and served from the Mexican border to Europe. In addition to playing their instruments, members provided first-aid and carried stretchers. Photo courtesy Harrisonburg- Rockingham Historical Society Heritage Museum.
The Dayton of today still bears many signs of its rich past and history. For those who call the Shenandoah Valley and Dayton home, as well as those who come to visit, there is much in the present and future to be proud of, as well.
The real beauty of the town is its people. Dayton is a blend of families who can trace their ancestors to a time when this community was just a stop on the Warm Spring Turnpike to those who have in recent years brought cultural richness of their own to the town.
Dayton is one of the most distinctive of several small towns lining the Harrisonburg – Warm Springs Turnpike. The Initial settlement goes back to about 1745 when Daniel Harrison moved to this area, probably building his stone house about 1749. By the time of the Revolution a road was constructed through the Harrison property. With an increased demand for iron and the growth of Miller’s Iron Works at Mossy Creek, several miles south of the Harrison’s’ house, the road was extended increasing the travel through the small community.
In 1828, Daniel Rife began to sell lots along the then main road, now College Street. In 1831-32, the present Main Street was opened as part of the Harrisonburg-Warm Springs Turnpike. A post office, Rifesville, was established in 1832. On March 6, 1833, an Act of the Virginia Legislature established the town of Dayton. The town prospered, although it was seriously threatened by the Civil War.
In 1878, a publishing firm, first established in Singers Glen by Joseph Funk, was moved to Dayton by Funk’s grandsons, Ephraim Reubush and Aldine Kieffer. They specialized in shaped note music, and by the turn-of the-century, were the largest music publishing house in Virginia. From 1875 until 1960, Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music was located in Dayton, further farming and poultry center with many Old Order Mennonites living in the area. New sections have sprung up in the west, but the older part of town is largely unchanged. Throughout the quiet streets some very picturesque and richly decorated buildings can be found.