An amazing little local museum



Executive Director Penny Imeson shows visitors examples of fraktur: decorative documents which commemorate births, baptisms, and significant moments in the Pennsylvania-Dutch tradition. Photo by Allen Litten

The Heritage Museum, home of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, makes a fun starting point to explore Dayton, Virginia. After touring the 14,000 square-foot museum and store, built to look like a 19th-century Valley farmstead, families can also enjoy the nearby playground and picnic shelter, a historic walking tour of the town, Silver Lake Mill, Fort Harrison, village restaurants and shops, and the nearby Dayton Market.

Museum Director Penny Imeson enjoys creating connections between the past and present. “Museums make us smarter and contribute to a vibrant local arts and culture scene. I love helping people recognize the importance of historic preservation in defining our culture,” she said. Penny uses her creativity to design many museum exhibits, newsletters and brochures that promote Historical Society activities. The Historical Society has been quite active since the 1960s, so collections are abundant. Those who sign the guest book at the museum offer great reviews.

Three permanent galleries illustrate the history of the Shenandoah Valley from pre-history to the present, and temporary galleries feature ever-changing exhibits on widely ranging subjects. In the Invincible Spirit gallery, visitors can enjoy Native American artifacts gathered from a farm near Cross Keys, walk through a scaled replica of a 19th-century potter’s kiln, and learn about the human side of the Civil War.

The Shenandoah Valley Folk Art Collection carefully weaves a story that spans more than two centuries. It includes textiles, ceramics, painted surfaces, wood and metals. The traditional arts reflect the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the original groups who settled here, primarily people of German and Scots-Irish descent.

Penny is currently working with a James Madison University intern to pull together a new exhibit of local stories from the home front during WWI and WWII. She is also planning a holiday exhibit pulling from the museum’s large collection of Victorian dolls, toys and trains. Visitors will discover how toys, education and the mindset of parenting has changed (or not) over time. In addition to Lincoln logs, felt boards and a weaving station, Penny will soon have activity packs ready to provide fun learning experiences for children while they are walking through the exhibits.

Museums make us smarter and  contribute to a vibrant local arts and culture scene.

Visitors can enjoy a presentation about Stonewall Jackson’s famous 1862 Valley Campaign during the Civil War. A vertical 14-foot relief map of the Shenandoah Valley from the Pennsylvania state line to Staunton uses more than 300 LED lights and sequences to indicate the movements of the competing armies. Coordinated with photographs and pictures of military leaders and scenes, the accompanying narration helps viewers understand Jackson’s maneuvers during his famous Valley Campaign. The map is especially interesting because it was created for the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s and retains the original music and narration, which adds to its charm.

The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society’s Genealogy Library offers a wide selection of research materials relating to Rockingham and adjoining counties, including family histories, church records and much more. A searchable database of more than 3,500 photographs and 3,000 slides provides yet another tool for visitors. Administrator Margaret Hotchner and experienced volunteers are available to assist visitors or prepare paid research.

The largest “artifact” of the museum is a restored 1840s historic home featuring late 19th and early 20th-century furnishings. Architectural features of this Cromer-Trumbo House show a German influence. Through the generosity of Mary Spitzer-Etter, visitors to the house can see her collection of Victorian and early 20th-century household items, toys and decorative arts. Since this house is only open to the public during special summer hours, some of its collection is rotated through the main museum for more frequent viewing.

Penny is helping the museum reach out to the surrounding community in many ways. The Historical Society partnered with WVPT to film some “Valley Pioneers” in the spring and is a full partner with JMU’s Institute for Visual Studies for the creation of the “Picturing Harrisonburg” exhibition and companion book. In addition, she is part of the Thomas Harrison House restoration committee. “All of these efforts help us to expand awareness, share resources and build programs for education and preservation of local history,” said Penny.

Volunteers gathered around the new LOVE artwork at The Heritage Museum/Historic Dayton Welcome Center. LOVEworks across Virginia provide photo opportunities and promote tourism. This LOVE celebrates our local agricultural heritage and natural beauty. Executive Director Penny Imeson is wearing the sunhat. Photo by Allen Litten

This past June, the museum partnered with Fort Harrison and the Silver Lake Mill for a special Dayton Historic Triangle History Day, and they are planning to have a similar event in 2017 – including a scavenger hunt with prize tokens for children. When homeschooler co-op groups schedule field trips, the museum provides an interpreter/educator. Penny also has ideas to involve boy and girl scouts. The Historic Triangle has contacted the library about being part of the summer reading program, too. About once each month, authors, historians, collectors and enthusiasts come to The Heritage Museum for speaking engagements. Scheduled events are posted at

With 2.6 full time equivalent staff people and about 70 dedicated volunteers, a lot is being accomplished at the museum. Penny says she always welcomes additional volunteers. Creating a booklet from Railroad Exhibit information, submitting memories of childhood (or grandchildren’s) toys, and greeting visitors at the front desk are just a few of many volunteer opportunities.
Admission to the museum is $8 per adult and an annual family membership for unlimited entry costs $40. The Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter, available at the website, gives readers a good idea of the many activities members enjoy.

LAUREE STROUD PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.


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