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The History of the Historical Society

In March of 1898, a letter to the editor of the Rockingham Register called for the public support of the newly formed Rockingham County Historical Society:

It is not sufficient that history has chronicled [the events] and the names of those who as patriots, soldiers, orators, writers, and statesmen wrought out the principles on which our great government is based. Song and story and fireside tales should impress those exploits and noble characters upon the minds and hearts of our youth.

One of the most effective ways of accomplishing this is to collect relics, compile biographical, geographical, and historical facts, narratives, and descriptions of persons and places of former days in our own county.

Such work an historical society with enthusiastic and intelligent members can perform, and find pleasure and profit in the task.

One year later, an update on the Society’s activities was published in the same newspaper.  At a meeting at the Courthouse, committee members Maj. George Chrisman, James B. Stephenson, and F. A. Byerly reported:

. . . a constitution and by-laws which are not of general interest, except that they indicate the purpose to embrace in the society all who will take any interest in it whatever, and to have every element of the county represented as far as possible.

The constitution contemplates the formation of a library, within which is to be gathered copies of all books printed within the county of Rockingham, or in use among its people, as far as possible; also the collection of historical matter, with the view to the eventual publication of the same. The desire is to collect manuscripts, letters, books, documents and relics of all sorts, that would be of interest to coming generations

In spite of its aspirations, the Society became dormant by 1912. In A History of Rockingham County, Virginia, local historian Dr. John Walter Wayland wrote: 

The society was given the use of a room in the courthouse; but in spite of this official recognition, the rich field at hand, and the need of a strong organization to preserve our historical materials, interest in the organization soon fell to a low ebb. A revival of spirit will doubtless come at some time in the future, when many golden opportunities have passed forever. Rockingham County needs a historical society; but such a society to live must have the sympathy of many people.

Historical Society Significant Dates

Wayland’s sympathy did not waver. On July 12, 1947, Wayland signed the Certificate of Incorporation for the Rockingham County Historical Society, along with John William Hess and Ethel Irwin Lineweaver.

The Society  encouraged preservation of court records and historic structures, published the Rockingham Recorder, and lobbied for an historical marker on Route 42 to highlight the Lincoln Homestead and Cemetery. The Society also sought a location to establish a museum, a vision that would remain a dream for decades.

In 1968, the Society acquired the electric of map of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign which had been created for the Civil War Centennial Commemoration. The dream of dedicated museum space was realized in the basement of Harrisonburg’s Municipal Building.

In 1978, the Historical Society moved into the Warren-Sipe House (now the Virginia Quilt Museum) on Main Street and expanded exhibit space. Admission for adults was 50¢. Also, in that year, the official name of the organization became the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society.

About ten years later, the Society received a gift of property just 5 miles away in the Town of Dayton from the estate of Shannon Trumbo. The offices and genealogy library moved to the historic Cromer-Trumbo House, while museum activities continued in Harrisonburg.

A successful capital campaign funded a new museum, library, and administrative facility which opened in 1993. In 2000, a building expansion created additional gallery space, named after first Historical Society President Gen. John E. Roller, and a lecture hall, named after Roller’s great-granddaughter Margaret Grattan Weaver, who donated $750,000 toward the building project.

Shortly after expanding, the Historical Society embraced a new vision and became known as the Shenandoah Valley Folk Art & Heritage Center. A fine folk art gallery was established, but the concept did not grow. The organization returned to doing business as the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society.

Around 2009, The Heritage Museum brand was established. Over time, it became clear that the name did not represent all aspects of HRHS activity, especially the genealogy and research library, and that it caused confusion with other area Heritage Centers.

In 2019, the Rocktown History brand was adopted to represent the broader vision of the Historical Society to expand programs within and beyond the walls of its home base in Dayton for all of Harrisonburg and Rockingham and their friends and neighbors.

Vision & Mission

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