DAYTON, Va. (AP) — The remnants of soft mist yawned from hills and fields. A pair of teen-aged girls jogged by Silver Lake and the sound of rushing water filled the air.
Silver Lake Mill owner Cheryl Lyon said the scenery is pretty much this idyllic every day, as it is across Dayton, a small town of around 1,700 people nestled in the southwestern corner of Rockingham County. The area is home to many farms and is a center for Mennonites, old-order Mennonites and members of Brethren and Church of the Brethren faith communities.
Last year, Silver Lake Mill celebrated its 200th anniversary all year long, with special events each month. To culminate the bicentennial, Lyon along with a team of helpers published a book on the history of Silver Lake. A lover of history, Lyon drew on her long-ago career as an investigative news reporter and photographer at The Daily News-Record to tell some of the mill’s stories through her strong rapport with the community.
Lyon, who currently lives in Dayton, started working at the Daily News-Record in 1969, at the age of 19. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C. proper, but it was the opportunity to attend Eastern Mennonite College that brought Lyon to the area.
It wasn’t until decades later, Lyon learned she can trace her heritage back to Rockingham County nine generations. Lyon said her great grandfather was a carpenter and he moved to the nation’s capital in 1904, seeking work.
“Knowing that gave me a sense of rootedness that I’ve just never had as a D.C. native,” Lyon said.
Lyon said she first worked for well-known Daily News-Record photographer Allen Litten. Over the next several years, she worked in a number of roles at the paper. Lyon said she wrote a number of investigative stories about some proposed resorts and schools that never came to be. She also served as the society editor for the DN-R, Lyon said.
“There is no better training that I could have for the rest of my life,” Lyon said, eyes sparking from the reflected sun inside the cool mill house. “You can use it in so many directions. I ultimately went in to 10 years of manufacturing management; 10 years of marketing management. What you learn, (in reporting) you take with you everywhere.”
A storyteller at heart, Lyon said she bought the mill in 1999 hoping to make the space a center for community and history in Dayton. Lyon said the town annexed the land the mill was on, so it could be part of the town, around the time of the purchase.
After restoring the mill to what it looked like pre-1945 — when it was purchased by Rockingham Milling Company and became a feed mill — people began bringing her letters, photographs and other tidbits of history and Lyon’s gears started turning.
“Silver Lake: 200 Years Of A Shenandoah Valley Mill & Community,” was published at the end of last year. A work of merit, “Silver Lake,” has the look and feel of a textbook and the content to boot. It’s full of the tidbits, along with maps, charts, stories and pictures, compiled and written by Lyon.
“People were very interested and had lots of memories here,” Lyon said. “As we approached the bicentennial, I started doing more serious research and then during the bicentennial I was furiously researching to pull together enough for the book.”
Rocktown History Executive Director Penny Imeson and Sam Funkouser, executive director of the Brethren and Mennonite Heritage Center, in Harrisonburg, each wrote forewords. Serving on the book committee were Lyon, Allen Litten, Imeson, Linda Jacobs, Richard Jacobs, Randall Jones, Jody Meyerhoffer and Deb Thompson.
The book talks about the history of the mill and highlights its bicentennial celebrations. Lyon put together a photo album of sorts for volunteers who helped with around a dozen community events put on by the mill over the year.
“It’s not a history of the mill per se, it’s a history of a small community here that I would call a German Baptist community, which is today’s Church of the Brethren,” Cheryl Lyon said.
Copies of “Silver Lake” are available for purchase at Rocktown History, Lyon said.
The events included mill-powered ice-cream socials, where an attachment to the mill churned the ice cream, a “Worship By The Water,” and on Dec. 1, 2022, a “Grand Illumination,” where lighted trees were launched on the lake. Hundreds attended the events.
“The homes around the lake at the time as well as the mill were all the Brethren people, who were expanding from northern Rockingham County and moving south,” Lyon said.
Home to many old-order Mennonites, Lyon also produces the popular “Best Little Book Of Rockingham County.” A yearbook of sorts, the “Best Little Book” respectfully tells stories of the old-order communities in Dayton, without highlighting any one person, or using photos of faces.
This year will be the book’s tenth volume. A volume is released annually. Copies are usually on sale at Rocky Cedars general store and Rocktown History, Lyon said.
The large wheel on the outside of the mill dates back to 1909, Lyon said. She only turns it on for special occasions, but she said one recent Thursday morning could count as a special occasion.
On the western side of the mill from the outside, the wheel shuddered to a start. Its red metal blades resembled aluminum blinds. Water already rushed over a steep drop from the lake.
Inside the dim millhouse, which Lyon renovated extensively, the flywheels shuddered and made the nowadays-unfamiliar mechanical rumblings of wood and metal.
Closer to silver lake, men fished with coolers and rods, bobbers floating on the water. A plucky duck swam upstream and then floated back down again. It appeared to be a game. And just at the crest of the hill, gone just as soon as it could be heard, was a speeding black horse and buggy.
“I knew there was history here — milling history at least — I didn’t know anything beyond that,” Lyon said. “Over time, I realized (the mill) was pulling together a pretty unusual story.”