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Rockingham County, Virginia
VAGenWeb Project

Towns in Rockingham County

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Harrisonburg, laid out upon 50 acres of land belonging to Thomas Harrison, was legally established in May, 1780, by the same Act that gave recognition to the town of Louisville, in the county of Kentucky . The place in early days was often called Rocktown; for example, Bishop Asbury designates it by that name in his journal, in 1795; and as late as 1818, perhaps later, the name Rocktown was frequently used. It is said that German Street was originally the main street, and what is now Main Street was then called Irish Street or Irish Alley.

In 1797 the town was enlarged by an addition of 23 1/2 acres, laid off in lots and streets, from the lands of Robert and Reuben Harrison; and Thomas Scott, John Koontz, Asher Waterman, Frederick Spangler, and Saml. McWilliams were made trustees. In 1808 an Act was passed enabling the freeholders and housekeepers resident in the town to elect five trustees annually; and by the same Act the trustees were authorized to raise $1000 by taxation for the purchase of a fire engine, hooks, and ladders. All the men of the town were to constitute the Harrisonburg Fire Company.

In the Rockingham Register of October 5, 1876, appeared a long article entitled, "Harrisonburg Fifty Years Ago," from which we quote the following paragraphs. They present a graphic account of certain interesting conditions in 1826, and thereabouts.

Jos. Cline occupied the Wm. Ott house (footnote: The Ewing building, opposite Newman Avenue, occupies the site of the Ott house. The stone house built by Th. Harrison is now Gen. Roller’s law office.) and carried on the tanyard now owned by Lowenbach. The house on the corner was built by James Hall, lawyer, fifty years ago. The stone house attached was the first house built in Harrisonburg. It was built by Thomas Harrison. After that house was put up, Mr. Harrison offered Maj. Richard Ragan (the father of ‘Aunt Polly Van Pelt’), who was a blacksmith, ten acres of land around the "big spring’ if he would bind himself to put up a shop near the spring. But the Major could not be fooled into any such a speculation, and he declined. At that time the ground around the spring was covered with rocks, many of the cliffs being so tall that a horse could hide behind them. There were but two practical paths to the spring, one running along by Dr. Waterman’s house and the other down by the house in which A.M. Effinger lives. Subsequently the rocks and thorn bushes and other undergrowth was cleaned away, and the spring was made a resort of the ladies of the town, who used to do their washing by the spring. Clothes lines made of grape vines were provided along the branch, and after the clothes were dried they were carried home to iron. Subsequently the trustees of the town passed an ordinance forbidding women to do their washing at the ‘spring’.

Fifty years ago there were no railroads in all this country. Our merchants went ‘below’ twice a year only. It required from four to six weeks to go ‘below,’ lay in goods and return. The goods for Harrisonburg were sent to Fredericksburg by water, and from there brought over in wagons. It took two weeks to make the trip. The wagoners charged from $1 to $1.25 a hundred for hauling. Some goods were brought up the Valley, by way of the ‘Keezletown road,’ that being at that time the principal thoroughfare of the Valley.

Fifty years ago the mails were carried from Winchester to Harrisonburg in Bockett’s two-horse coaches. The mail came once a week, except when the river at Mt. Jackson would be swollen by the rains, or when the roads were very bad, when the mail would not come oftener than semi-monthly. In the course of time the business of the Valley became so important, that the mail route was changed to a semi-weekly one. It was hard work, but Bockett actually ran from Winchester to Staunton in three days.

Fifty years ago there were but two churches in town, the old Methodist Church, which stood on the hill above the Catholic Church, and the Presbyterian Church. (Footnote: "The old Methodist church on the hill" stood where the church of the Brethren now stands; the Catholic church referred to stood (1876) opposite the passenger station, on the site now occupied by the large Snell building; the Presbyterian church in 1826 was on E. Market Street.)

Fifty-five years ago there was no paper published in Harrisonburg. At that time Ananias Davisson, had a small office in which he printed the Kentucky Harmony and other musical works. Shortly after that Lawrence Wartmann commenced the publication of the ‘Rockingham Weekly Register,’ with 86 subscribers. The REGISTER list now reaches 1800.

On March 31, 1838, Samuel Shacklett, Isaac Hardesty, Jacob Rohr, Jr., Nelson Sprinkel, and Samuel Liggett were elected trustees of Harrisonburg for the ensuing year. All these gentlemen were well known residents of the town for many years. Hardesty and Shacklett being very successful merchants. Before me is an old account book used by Mr. Shacklett, containing entries made from 1851 to 1874. On one of the leaves is a carefully prepared table, of four columns, headed,

Broke | Neither made | Made under | Made over
           |     or lost           |  $10,000        | $10,000

In the column under "Broke" are written the names of 36 individuals and firms: under the next head, "Neither made nor Lost," are 30 names; three men, A.E. Heneberger, M. Hite Effinger, and Geo. Cline, are put down as having made under $10,000; while in the fourth column are eight names: Thos. Scott, John Graham, Jerry Kyle, Jno. F. Effinger, Isc. Hardesty, S. Henry, M.H. Effinger, and S.S."

By an Act of March 16, 1849, the boundaries of Harrisonburg were defined as follows:

Beginning at a point on the old Valley road, beyond the gate leading to Mr. A.C. Bryan’s farm, and in a line with the land of J. Hardesty and others; thence westwardly, on a line with the said land, to the head of a lane which intersects with the road leading to Antioch; thence from the head of said lane, in a southern direction, in a line parallel with the present western limits of said town, to a point in the Warm Springs Pike, at or near the old brewery, and on a line with the lands of Mrs. P. Kyle Liggett and others; thence east, in a line with said lands, to a point in the lots of Mrs. E. Stevens; thence northwardly, in a straight line, to the beginning, shall be and continue to constitute the area of the town heretofore known as the town of Harrisonburg, in the County of Rockingham.

The boundaries of the town have been rearranged at various times since the above date; for example, in 1868, 1877, 1894, etc. On February 14 and 15, 1868, J. H. Ralston, county surveyor, made a survey which was defined in the next issue of the Register as follows:

The survey commenced at a point near Swanson’s residence, about 1 mile East of the Court House. It ran thence in a Northern direction, passing east of Hilltop, R.A. Gray’s property, to a point in the line between Gray & P. Liggett, thence in a North-western direction, crossing the Valley Turnpike to the North of David Yeakel’s lane, on the Kratzer road. Thence with the Kratzer road, crossing the O., Alexandria and Manassas Gap Railroad, to a point near Capt. D.S. Jones’ pond, thence crossing the lands of D.S. Jones to a point West of the Waterman house, thence passing West of Jackson Miller’s house, to a spring in Kyle’s field, West of the brick dwelling house, thence crossing the H. & W.S. pike to the Toll-gate on the Valley pike, thence with the Port Republic road, to a white oak tree on the top of the hill, (not far from where Gen. Ashby was killed,) thence in a Northeastern direction to the beginning.

The Woodbine Cemetery Company was chartered by the legislature in March, 1850, John Kinney, Ab. Smith, and fourteen others being named in the Act, and given the right to purchase and hold, in or near the town, not more than 15 acres of ground for the purposes specified.

In 1868 the amount of taxes levied in Harrisonburg on personal property was $1659.57, and on real estate $2885.82; on both, $4545.39. In 1911 the total amount, on real and personal property, at a rate of 65 cents on the $100, was $22,083.80. In 1870 the population of the town was stated as 2828; at present (1912) it is, almost exactly, 5000.

The "boom" period was marked by decided "plants" and prophecies in Harrisonburg, not all of which grew or came true; but, as already indicated, the town has had a constant and healthy growth. It is noted as the best horse market in the Valley. In 1899 Harrisonburg voting precinct was divided into East Harrisonburg and West Harrisonburg.

In August, 1873, Judge James Kenney wrote in his diary: "The necessity of pure water is now felt in our town"; and the question of a good water supply was agitated for a number of years following. In 1886 the artesian well which was to supply the town had been put down 455 feet. In 1889 the well of J.P.Houck had been bored to a depth of 600 feet. The same year a system of water works was completed and accepted by the council. In 1890 the town had a water supply from and artesian well 600 feet deep (presumably Mr. Houck’s); and the Houck Tanning Company was putting in an electric light plant. On December 22 (1890) the electric lights were turned on for the first time. In 1895 the town took up a proposition for a better water supply, and in 1898 the present splendid system, bringing an abundant supply by gravity from Riven Rock, near Rawley Springs, was installed under the direction of N. Wilson Davis, engineer. In 1904 the town issued $60,000 in bonds for the construction of a municipal light and power plant, which has been in successful operation for a number of years past.

On Christmas day, 1870, about 4 o’clock in the morning, fire broke out on the south side of the public square, and burned all the buildings over to the old stone Waterman house. The loss totaled $50,000 or $60,000.

In 1875 the first town clock for Harrisonburg was put in the court house tower.

In 1887, and thereabout, Harrisonburg had no saloons.

In 1902 the Big Spring, so long a landmark of the town, was covered over.

Among the historic houses of the town are the Harrison house, now Gen. John E. Roller’s office; the Waterman house, south side of the public square; and Collicello, west of the freight station.

Collicello was built about 1812 by the eminent lawyer, Robert Gray; and there his 8 children, one of whom became the distinguished Col. Algernon Gray, were born.

The Waterman house, a low stone structure with dormer windows, was the residence of Dr. Asher Waterman, who built it prior to 1799. Later it was the home of Sen. Isaac S. Pennybacker (born 1805, died 1847). In 1854 it was the original home of the Bank of Rockingham, the first bank in the county. From 1860 to 1905 it was the residence of Hon. D.M. Switzer. When Mr. Switzer came to Harrisonburg in 1843 this house was occupied by the Rev. Henry Brown, pastor of the Presbyterian Church. At that time there was but one pavement in the town; that one was of stone, and lay on the north and east sides of the Waterman house, which then, and until the fire of 1870, stood more than 20 feet in advance of the other buildings on the south side of the public square.

The Harrison house is mentioned in this volume in so many connections that no special sketch is deemed necessary here.

Harrisonburg has had an organized military company throughout many years of its history; and as already indicated, the beginning of its fire companies must be dated more than a century ago. The Harrisonburg fire companies in recent years have been conspicuous in the State conventions and contests, winning notable honors at Staunton in 1893, at Portsmouth in 1894, at Roanoke in 1912, and at other places at other times. They are doing a fine service in Harrisonburg, and occasionally in neighboring towns.

In July, 1897, shortly after the fire laddies of Harrisonburg had distinguished themselves at Winchester, the following lines by M. J. McGinty, of New York, appeared in the Register:

All hail to the laddies, those knights of the reel,
The quick-sprinting victors, with hearts true as steel;
All hail to the firemen, victorious and brave,
Slaves only to duty - their mission to save.
* * * * * * *
All hail to the champions! Our hats off to you;
O, here’s to the invincible wing-footed crew!
We drink to your health! may your record remain
As a shaft for all time to your worth and your fame.
* * * * * * *

The present municipal officers of Harrisonburg are:

Mayor - John H. Downing.
Recorder - John G. Yancey, Jr.
Assessor - R. Lee Woodson.
Treasurer - Henry A. Sprinkel.
Sergeant - J. E. Altaffer.
Councilmen - J.S. Bradley, A.M. Loewner, T.E. Sebrell, R. Lee Allen, T.N. Thompson, D.C. Devier, V.R. Slater, F.F. Nicholas, J.M. Snell.


Text from "A History of Rockingham County Virginia" by John W. Wayland, Ph.D. - Published 1912
Photo from old postcard

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