The Creation of Silver Lake

Near Mole Hill, in the Shenandoah Valley south of Harrisonburg, Virginia there flows a bountiful spring of pure, cold water. The land encompassing this spring was purchased by John J. Rife in the late 1700s. The town that developed nearby was called Rifetown until 1833, when the town was renamed Dayton.

Silver Lake was created in 1823, when Rife obtained a permit to dam the stream flowing down from the spring. The spring's source was at the northern end of the new 12-acre lake. Rife erected a grist mill, a type of mill that grinds corn into meal. Placed at the southern end of the lake where the ground drops naturally, Rife's Mill used the spring's remarkable 2.8 million gallons of daily flow.

This first mill on the site was run on the "custom" system, whereby Rife would ground the local farmers' corn into meal and would then receive a portion as his payment. Mills often became local hubs of commerce and community. While the farmer waited, he would often visit a nearby blacksmith, cobbler, general store, or post office and catch up with the doings of his neighbors.

Milling was a dangerous occupation, requiring the miller to keep a close watch on the huge, round, grooved stones to ensure they never touched. Any contact between the stones caused a twofold disaster by ruining the product with stone grit and shooting sparks that could ignite a fire in the highly flammable environment of the floury, wooden structure. The miller had to constantly monitor the grinding by looking between the two grinding stones, keeping his "nose to the grindstone". Occasionally one of the stones would break loose and spin across the room with destructive power. The huge machinery and rush of water caused the building to shake and thrum with noise.

Part of the Brethren Community

Most of the mill's early owners and a large part of the local community were members of the German Baptist Brethren. In their early days, these members were known as Dunkards or Dunkers, and since 1908 have been known as members of the Church of the Brethren. A separatist, non-conformist, and agrarian people, the Brethren created communities that fostered the growth of Brethren-owned commerce that supported their small, family run farms. Their separatist beliefs required they hold themselves aloof from the greater society in which they lived, taking no part in the political process, clothing themselves in distinct, plain clothes, and abstaining from the production, use, and sale of both alcohol and tobacco, often to their economic detriment. They were directed to neither keep, trade in, nor hire the use of slaves. They took care of their own elderly and poor so as not to become burdensome to their neighbors and settled disputes among themselves, having an abhorrence of lawsuits. They were pacifists in the broadest sense: all of their practices were intended to encourage a life of peaceful coexistence.

The mill remained a Brethren-owned business through most of the 19th century. Ownership of Rife's Mill and lake property passed to Frederic Cline in 1830 for the sum of $12,000, and again to Frederick Miller and Daniel Bowman for $12,000 in 1839. Bowman later purchased Miller's share. During Bowman's 40-year ownership the mill was renamed "Bowman's Mill". The mill wheel was changed from a breast wheel to an overshot wheel during Bowman's early ownership. He installed a new overshot wheel in 1852. Later, in 1856, the mill burned and was immediately repaired.

The Civil War

This brings us to the Civil War era, and a resurgence of conflict with society. The Brethren's doctrine of strict pacifism, the way of peaceful living, prohibited them from bearing arms and from military service, whether as part of a local peacetime militia or for full military service. Since their early days in Germany and through the Revolutionary War, they had refused military service and been fined or imprisoned for these decisions. Their refusal to bear arms in support of the American Revolution may have been a large factor in their south and westward migration from Pennsylvania. However, they gained exemption in the War of 1812 and with the advent of the Civil War they were once again exempted, although levied taxes and fines in recompense. This tolerance under law was not always apparent at the local level, where they were bitterly resented by some. An exacerbating factor was their lack of support for the Confederacy, which they considered to be an illegitimate government. With regard to slavery, the Brethren doctrine (also in agreement with other German-based separatist churches, such as the Mennonites) was quite clear from its earliest days - they were firmly against slavery. Daniel Bowman was known to be a strong Unionist who refused to provide his services to the Confederate army except under force. He did, however, feed any soldier who came to him in need.

Conflicts ensued during the Civil War on many fronts. In the fall of 1864, the Union General, Philip Henry Sheridan, came to burn the Shenandoah Valley farms, the breadbasket to the Army of Northern Virginia. Under the command of General Grant, Sheridan was instructed to destroy all resources used by the Confederate armies in Virginia, this included the burning of all crops, barns, houses, factories, and, of course, mills. Sheridan was reported to say he wanted the destruction to be so thorough that "a crow flying across this valley would have to carry his own rations." A deal was struck with Bowman on the basis of his loyalty to the Union and, therefor, Bowman's Mill was to be spared by Sheridan. However, Union General George Armstrong Custer refused to recognize the agreement and Bowman's mill, his nearby saw mill, and one of his two homes were all burned by Custer's troops. Destruction by the Union army was ruthless in the area surrounding Dayton. The devastation in the Valley was extensive. In Rockingham County alone, the destruction encompassed more than 60 mills and 450 barns. In the end, Sheridan and Custer's men destroyed an estimated 400 square miles of the Shenandoah Valley.

As many as 400 wagons full of Brethren and Mennonites now left their destroyed farms, and the bitterness and contention, behind them. Sheridan's army protected them as they fled the Shenandoah Valley to West Virginia. However, most, including miller Bowman, remained.

After the war many loyalists sought restitution for their losses. Bowman's claim for his mill was unsuccessful. In 1910, after his death, the claim was resubmitted to Congress by his son, Benjamin F. Bowman, for the sum of $11,500. Several witnesses attested to Bowman's loyalty to the Union, his refusal to sell his products to the Confederate Army, and even to his sending a son north to escape the army. The disposition of this case is not known.

Modernization and Expansion

According to tax records, Bowman's Mill was rebuilt by 1866. One half interest in the flour mill, saw mill, miller's house, and water rights was sold to Benjamin F. Long and Peter Long in 1870; Daniel Bowman sold his remaining interest to them in 1877. In 1880 these owners sued the "Lower Mill" at Dayton, located downstream from Bowman's Mill, for raising their dam and slowing Bowman's Mill to "one-tenth of its normal power." This suit was successful. Daniel Bowman testified that the wheel in use at this time was the same overshot wheel installed by him in 1852. The wheel must have survived both fires.

Another owner, Charles P. Arey, is recorded in Chataigne's Virginia Gazetteer and Classified Business Directory in 1885. By 1896 the mill had a new owner, Robert H. Brown, whose name has been uncovered stenciled on a wall in the mill. A 1905 receipt shows R. H. Brown as the manufacturer of "The Celebrated Silver Lake Patent Flour." In 1909, J.P. Long assumed ownership of Bowman's Mill. By 1913, the mill was called "Dayton Roller Mills", producing and advertising flour, feed, and meal. Dayton Roller Mills was one of just a few Rockingham County mills to survive the technological shift to high-speed, efficient steel rollers in place of the flat millstones. Advances in transportation also made it cheaper and easier for farmers to transport grain to the mill, so the need for numerous, local mills rapidly decreased.

Several ownership changes occurred in the teens and twenties. Silver Lake Improvement Company owned the mill in 1915, Amos Shank bought the Mill in 1917, Walter Heatwole et al purchased the mill in 1920, and J.B. Grove and his wife purchased the mill in 1924 for $19,000. Grove, an experienced miller, guided the mill's operations for the next 20 years.

In June 1945, the City of Harrisonburg purchased the 12-acre Silver lake, the 60-barrel capacity flour mill and nearby house from the Groves for $25,000. The city had pumped water from the lake during droughts in 1930, 1932, 1941, and 1943 though it was not popular with Harrisonburg consumers, who were used to the unusually soft water of Riven Rock. However, hearing of another impending sale of the lake property while also expecting another drought year, Harrisonburg City Council moved to secure rights to the water by purchasing the lake and mill. A 1945 drought was narrowly averted. The city then sold the mill in 1946 to Rockingham Milling Company for $5,225, while retaining ownership of the lake. Until 1999, Dayton regularly used Silver Lake's water and held a 99-year right, which ended in 2014.

Flour was ground by the steel Fitz water wheel until the flour machinery was sold to a North Carolina company in 1963. Feed was still ground and mixed at the site until the fall of 1996, when Rockingham Milling moved to a new facility north of Dayton and abandoned the Bowman's Mill site. Rockingham Milling donated the mill property to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Historical Society in 1997 in the hopes of preserving it as much as possible. The cost of preserving the mill as a historical site was prohibitive and the society searched for a purchaser who would be sensitive to the mill's history. LDA Creations, Inc. purchased the mill in December 1999 to house our workshop. After the restoration and transition was complete, LDA occupied the building in spring 2001.