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.