Before I continue with my story, let me share a little bit of Dayton’s history. Learning it helped me understand their response to my ideas that day at Stoller Vineyards.
Dayton sits on the Yamhill River in Yamhill County. It was founded in 1850 by Andrew Smith and Joel Palmer. Smith named it after his hometown, Dayton, Ohio.
This founding was a mere seven years after the formation of the Provisional Government of Oregon where the settlers laid claim to the Oregon Country from Britain, a vast new land that extended west of the Rockies from California to Canada.
The site that established this provisional government was Champoeg, on the eastern banks of the Willamette River, just a little downstream from Dayton. The connecting point of these four new administrative districts was where the Yamhill River met the Willamette River. That place, which would soon be known as Dayton, was defined as the nexus for this entire new land of opportunity and was to become an important region of the US, the Northwest.
The Willamette River is the last major river that had to be crossed in order to reach some of the best farmland on the entire continent. This land was rich with topsoil that was scraped from Eastern Washington in massive floods, some 15,000 ago, at the end of the last ice age. The Missoula Floods.
This river was uncrossable by wagon all the way north to where it flowed into the Columbia. But Dayton's future was defined by a sandbar, just upstream from where the Yamhill River met the Willamette.
That sandbar was important for two reasons. It created the Dayton Landing, the first place on the entire length of the Willamette where wagon trains could cross the river. It also hampered the navigation of boats further up the river. Steamboats were diverted up the Yamhill River to Dayton’s docks.
Early settlers used that landing to lay claim to land that some might describe, within the context of the Manifest Destiny, as the promised land.
After indigenous tribes were forced into a reservation in the coastal range, the land was settled and farmed. The produce from this rich valley was shipped from Dayton’s docks back to the mills and markets in Oregon City and further north to Portland.
Dayton’s settlers had great plans. They hoped that it would become the seat of the new Yamhill County and in preparation they built their city around a grand square. But their hopes were soon dashed by the railroad. The railroad company chose to bring their tracks into McMinnville, further up the Yamhill River.
McMinnville soon became the primary hub of the Yamhill Valley and the county seat, leaving Dayton without even a major state highway running through it. It was left behind. And, for many, still to this day, largely overlooked.
Today Dayton has around 2,500 people. About two-thirds of its students come from families facing real economic challenges. A third of the students are Hispanic.
Despite its size, this town is proud. Their school mascot is a pirate and they wholeheartedly embrace that image of themselves, referring to themselves as the Pirate Nation. Over the years they have continued to win numerous state championships in sports. They also have one of the country’s best Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs, and commonly win at the national competitions. They have multi-generational family ties and a fundamental belief in themselves and their potential. It’s a place where people feel a strong sense of belonging.
The Audacious Aspiration of building an innovation hub that could become a model for rural communities around the country felt completely possible.
Besides, their story was inextricably tied back to Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight, where a couple of bicycle mechanics courageously thought differently about the nature of balance. These rank amateurs dared to change the world.
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