The city of Dayton rests like a tree-lined oasis at the confluence of Patit Creek and the Touchet River, amid the rolling hills of Columbia County northeast of Walla Walla. The county seat, Dayton is one of the oldest incorporated communities in Washington, and the town wears its history well. Lewis and Clark camped along Patit Creek on their return trip in 1806; 50 years later, the nearby Oregon Trail and Mullan Road delivered some of the earliest homesteaders to the area. By 1882, Dayton ranked as the third-largest city in Washington Territory, behind Seattle and Walla Walla.
Today, Dayton's downtown reflects a pride in the city's heritage. From the oldest depot in Washington (1881) to the state's oldest functioning courthouse (1887) to the 115 other buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Dayton's commitment to honoring and preserving that history is clear. But it was not always so.
"In 1983, the town was in bad shape," says Jennie Dickinson, the executive director of Dayton's Chamber of Commerce. "Main Street was just about empty of businesses, and it was ugly. So they had a big town meeting. Three hundred people attended, [more than] a tenth of the population, and they made a decision to do something about the economy and the community."
Making a Stand -- Heather Hiebert was part of the downtown task force that emerged from that 1983 meeting. Hiebert moved to Dayton in 1978 with her husband, Bruce, to open the Patit Creek Restaurant, a deceptively elegant Art Deco dining room tucked in a cottage at the edge of town. Featuring classical French cuisine, Patit Creek consistently ranks near the top among Eastern Washington restaurants.
"We thought we were floundering out here, and we needed to pull together," she recalls. "Farming was taking a bit of a nosedive. Kids didn't want to come back and mind the farm. We really didn't have much going here."
A consultant familiar with the metamorphosis of Leavenworth in Central Washington facilitated the meeting. After decades of hard times, the people of Leavenworth united in the 1960s to remake their old lumber and railroad town into a model Bavarian village, in keeping with its alpine setting. By 1983, Leavenworth's transformation was complete and the small city -- about half the size of Dayton in 1970 -- was thriving, thanks to hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
Leavenworth offered a tempting example to Dayton's task force, but the city opted not to take the theme town route. Instead, the group decided to capitalize on Dayton's own history rather than "phonying up something."
"I don't know how Leavenworth got united enough to do that," Hiebert laughs. "I don't think we could have done anything like that, because we're way too independent. But we can all agree that we love our history."
The task force developed a downtown revitalization plan and set up a festivals and events committee. The depot already functioned as a heritage museum; it was donated to the Dayton Historical Depot Society by the Union Pacific Railroad and opened in 1981. The task force then set its sights on the Columbia County Courthouse, the oldest functioning courthouse in Washington and an architectural gem that had fallen into disrepair. Both private donations and public money funded the building's restoration. Finally, in 1992, the restored courthouse opened to the public.
"It was the early 1990s before the Main Street revitalization was done and the courthouse was done," says Dickinson. "It has taken another 10 years to feel the effects, but it really has had a positive effect on the community. Right now, the downtown has the highest occupancy rate in at least 20 years. Our population had declined for the last  years but at the last census it actually grew, so that's a huge turnaround. Because of these efforts, we've become more attractive. And tourism -- while it's not at the level of Leavenworth, it is what keeps our downtown vibrant and healthy and adds just enough more to what the local residents spend to keep it going."
The task force efforts made Dayton more attractive to private investors as well. The first commercial restoration project on Main Street was undertaken by Ginny Butler, a fourth-generation Dayton native who had lived in San Francisco for 20 years. She made a donation to the courthouse project then became more and more involved until she finally moved back to the area, becoming an influential member of the task force and the local business community. She and her husband Dan purchased the Guernsey-Sturdevant Building and the adjacent Weinhard Building. The first became the Wenaha Gallery; the latter they turned into the Weinhard Hotel, a small Victorian hotel filled with period antiques.
"Because of the Patit Creek Restaurant and because we owned the Blue Mountain Motel, we knew there was a need for better lodging here," she says.
The hotel opened in 1994 and business was bumpy for the first four years, especially during 1996 when heavy rain and snowmelt from the Blue Mountains flooded the Touchet River and did widespread damage to roads and bridges in Dayton. But after the fourth year, business at the hotel took off, Butler says.
"More restoration had been done around town by then," she says. "And it has just improved steadily."
Retail Remains -- Across the street from the hotel, Bev Startin opened Patit Valley Products four years ago in a spacious restored storefront with high ceilings and exposed brick walls. She carries gifts and cards and even a few Dayton souvenirs. Her espresso treats, homemade breads and hearty soups draw a steady crowd at lunchtime, a good mix of locals and tourists.
"Now that I have the coffee and lunch, it brings the locals in," she explains. "Then they see things to buy while going out the door. It's been a good blend for me."
One Main Street business that hasn't changed much is Dingle's department store. Dingle's carries a little bit of everything, from poker chips to hunting gear, from plumbing supplies to china cups. Owned and operated by three generations of the Dingle family since 1920, the store just changed hands for the first time four months ago. New owner Mindy Betzler leaped in with both feet, but longtime staff and customers aren't worried about drastic changes.
"When she bought it, she said that she never had any intention of changing it," says Nancy Otterson, a store employee since 1977. "Of course, you have to have progress, but basically it will always be Dingle's, and that's good."
Thanks to Dingle's, Dayton residents can buy socks and underwear without leaving town, something that's impossible in many small towns. Need a roasting pan at the last minute? They've got it. Old-fashioned glass fuses for your 1907 house? They've got those, too. A delicate floral teapot for Grandma's birthday? Not only does Dingle's have it in stock, but the staff will gift-wrap it for you at no charge.
"I know that Dingle's is definitely an important part of Dayton," Otterson says. "I think it reflects the population. It shows the diversity of the town. We've got something for everybody."
Older businesses like Dingle's join with newer retailers like Patit Valley Products for special promotions throughout the year. The retailers produced a brochure describing the shops along Main Street and they work together cooperatively to create a smooth shopping experience for both visitors and locals.
"We work together on advertising and coordinating events," says Startin. "And it has gotten us into each other's shops to see what they have. If I have a customer come in and I don't have what they need, I'll get on the phone and call around. It doesn't make me any money, but it's good customer service. And we're keeping those dollars in Dayton."
Off the record, business owners decry the growth of big box stores in places like Walla Walla and Tri-Cities even as they tout the resurgence of Main Street. They challenge the widespread perception among local residents that shopping at such stores saves money.
"Some of the local residents haven't quite gotten [the idea] that tax dollars that can stay here can really help us," one business owner says. "It's not just our own businesses that benefit. The tax dollars come back and it helps the whole city."
Agriculture in Transition -- Despite the importance of preservation activity in Dayton, agriculture remains the top industry in Columbia County. Wheat and barley grown around Dayton are shipped via barge on the Snake River from the Port of Columbia at Lyons Ferry. Peas and asparagus used to be major crops in the area, but those crops have shifted westward toward Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities. The Green Giant cannery (now owned by Seneca) has been a major seasonal employer in Dayton for 70 years; as recently as 2002, the facility supplied about 40 percent of the world's canned asparagus. Due to declining demand and competition from abroad, however, the company will relocate its asparagus canning operation to Peru following the pack next spring, cutting 34 full-time positions and more than 1,000 seasonal jobs.
"We have some prospects for filling the facility, so we're not too [worried] about it yet," says Dickinson at the Chamber of Commerce. "The facility is well kept and maintained, so I'm confident someone will want to use it."
When the company first cut back in the early 1980s, the impact on the town was dramatic, Dickinson says. Now, given the changes in the past 20 years, "I think we're in a better position to handle it," she says. "Our industrial park is full, our Main Street is full, so we're not going to dry up and blow away."
Perhaps the biggest shift in agriculture and food processing in recent years has been the explosion of wineries in the nearby Walla Walla Valley. Heather Hiebert of Patit Creek Restaurant says the first two wineries in the area -- Leonetti's and Woodward Canyon -- opened around the same time as the restaurant in 1978. As of 2002, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance counted about 40 wineries and more than 1,100 acres planted in grapes. The wineries bring more than $100 million into the Walla Walla economy -- and some of those tourists and dollars trickle eastward into Dayton. Now, Dayton has its own winery, Patit Creek Cellars, open on event weekends.
"Everybody has benefited from the wineries," says Hiebert. "Gas stations, hotels -- it has just helped everybody. With the changes in the wheat industry, it has been wonderful to fill that void."
FACT FILE: DAYTON, WASH.
The Dayton School District 2 serves 597 students in grades K-12. About 48 percent of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches, compared to an average of 36 percent statewide.
Elevation: 1,600 feet
Zip code: 99328
Median household income:
$31,409 (year 2000)
Median house value:
$78,700 (year 2000)
Form of Government: Mayor-Council
Seneca Foods Corporation
Ski Bluewood (largely seasonal)
Dayton General Hospital
Dayton Public Schools
Columbia Cut Stock
U.S. Government (Army Corps of Engineers, Postal Service)
(from Dayton Chamber of Commerce)
Columbia County: 42.4 years
Hispanic Population in Columbia County:
1990: 11.5 percent
2000: 6.3 percent
Hispanic Population in Washington state:
1990: 4.4 percent
2000: 7.5 percent
(from Washington State Employment Security Department Columbia County Profile, September 2002)