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Originally published August 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 11, 2005 at 3:24 PM

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Painted ladies of Columbia County

Between rounded hills sueded with wheat, down a sweet two-lane that proves driving can still be fun, Dayton is a surprise of a town that...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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DAYTON, Columbia County — Between rounded hills sueded with wheat, down a sweet two-lane that proves driving can still be fun, Dayton is a surprise of a town that shatters the mold of rural Eastern Washington.

Fine dining, elegant lodging, a walking tour with 117 buildings on the National Register. House-made microbrews, and a family farm making goat cheese that's turning chef's heads. A trove of history, lovingly presented in a museum of Indian culture, and an outdoor sculpture of a Lewis and Clark encampment, just outside town. Who knew?

For Dayton is a town where the residents decided more than 20 years ago their city would not lay down and die like so many other rural villages across Eastern Washington.

"Dayton has just picked itself up by its bootstraps; it was one of those rural towns that was just going to fade into obscurity," said Muff Donohue, a resident since 1952. "We had vacant buildings, unkempt areas; those things are the death of a small town."

In 1983, more than 300 people turned out for a town meeting to figure out how to keep their town alive. Decisions that day sparked a revival that continues today.

"We were just lucky enough to have people who saw the potential. It was no one person; each one inspired another somehow," Donohue said.

If you go


Historic Dayton

Lodging

The Weinhard Hotel, 235 E. Main St., allows pets, but think twice before taking dogs to Eastern Washington in the summer — it will be very hot. Fresh fruit is provided in the rooms; coffee, tea and muffins are complimentary at breakfast. Rates range from $75 to $150 per night. The hotel has central air conditioning. 509-382-4032 or www.weinhard.com.

Dining

Dayton is a town that closes up early. Plan to arrive by 7 p.m. to get dinner in town. Many of the best places are closed Monday and Tuesday.

If you want to eat at Patit Creek Restaurant, 725 E. Dayton Ave., be sure to call at least a week ahead and make a reservation. Lunch is offered Wednesday-Friday beginning at 11:30 a.m., and dinner Wednesday-Saturday. For reservations call Wednesday-Saturday after 10 a.m. at 509-382-2625.

Attractions

Monteillet Fromagerie offers tours of the farm and wine-and-cheese tasting on weekends, or by appointment. A $10 tasting fee is waived if you spend $20 or more. Fine regional wines and several varieties of artisan cheeses from goat and sheep's milk are available for purchase. Call 509-382-1917 to schedule a visit. For more information: www.montecheese.com.

For information about Lewis and Clark's travels through this area, see www.forgottentrail.com. To visit the Lewis and Clark encampment sculpture, travel Highway 12 east (the main street through Dayton) and turn right on Patit Road. You'll see the sculptures on the right, below the basalt historic marker.

The state Department of Transportation's Lewis and Clark commemorative highway maps are a fun companion in the car; they are marked with the Corps' encampment sites, with historic notes. To order a map call 360-705-7000 or pick one up at the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, 166 E. Main St.

The Palus Artifact Museum at 305 E Main St. has a collection of Palouse Indian artifacts and Lewis and Clark memorabilia. Open from 1-4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays or by appointment. 509-382-4820.

Traveler tip

On the way home, take the scenic route, heading north out of Dayton on U.S. Highway 12 and west on state Highway 261, through the spectacular Snake River country. Stop along the way at Palouse Falls State Park (www.parks.wa.gov) to see 200-foot-high Palouse Falls bullet out of a sheer basalt wall to a pool below. Continue on 261, then west on Highway 260 to Highway 21 north, and west on Highway 26 to enjoy a tour of the state's farm and orchard country.

More information

For informational brochures about the town's historic buildings and maps of walking tours, stop by the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, 166 E. Main St. For more information,

www.historicdayton.com or 800-882-6299.

The result is a town that is a jewel of historic preservation, with the amenities of a much larger city, often at a fraction of the cost.

House brews, pub fare

Time it right, and arrive just as the last sun is painting the hills of the Palouse with gold, and deer pick their way delicately across the river valleys.

Head into town and if you are lucky, the Skye Book and Brew will still be open, with a choice of house-brewed beers on tap, fresh and lively and new, made every Sunday by owner Michael McQuary.

The food here is sturdy pub fare — Reuben sandwiches big as a doorstop, chicken pot pies. But save room for the beer: The Starveout Stout, crafted from oatmeal, is velvety, rich and practically a meal in itself. The Tucannon Honey Wheat is a refreshing ale made from winter wheat malt grown right in Columbia County.

In between driving a school bus to pay the bills, McQuary used 1,500 pounds of sand to blast five layers of crud off the walls and expose the original, glowing rose colored brick in the building, which dates to the 1890s. He ordered 5,000 used books off eBay ("hauled 'em myself in the stock trailer") and hired a consultant to get through his first batch of brew. The Book and Brew was born.

Typical of a town rebuilt on pluck: Consider the Weinhard Hotel. Owners Dan and Ginny Butler had to climb through a window to see just what could be salvaged of the former saloon and lodge hall built in 1889 by Portland brewer Henry Weinhard's nephew Jacob, who had come to Dayton to start his own brewery.

The $1 million restoration was finished in 1994. Today the hotel is a Victorian showpiece with 15 rooms, high ceilings and wainscoting, doors, molding and hardware from the original lodge. The result is a building rich in character, with all the modern conveniences but without the usual Victorian goo — teddy bears, stuffed geese, a surfeit of lace. None of that here.

Instead the visitor is treated to fine woven French carpets and baskets of fruit and fresh flowers in rooms tastefully furnished — but not cluttered — with antiques purchased by the Butlers in trip after trip to the American South, hauled back by U-Haul truck.

"It was like a great treasure hunt," Ginny Butler said. "We were trying to reproduce the feeling of what it would have been like staying here, back then."

Oldest passenger station

The hotel was one of several key restorations in Dayton that helped anchor the town's revival. First came the train depot, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Built in 1881, the wood-frame structure was moved to its present location on roller logs, pulled by horse and winch.

Immaculately kept, the building's freight scale is still intact. A counter inside, along a grand bay window facing the tracks, is curved for the stationmaster to lean forward and watch trains approach.

The oldest surviving passenger station in Washington, the depot is now a museum, with historic photographs and period furnishings in the waiting room, stationmaster's office and living quarters upstairs.

The town's crown jewel is its courthouse, dating to 1887, and the oldest working courthouse in Washington. Restored in 1993, the work was a labor of love, 10 years and nearly $2 million in the making, with most of the money coming from private citizens, corporations and foundations, and $580,000 from the feds and the state.

The original grandeur of the courtroom was restored, with its balconies, 22-foot-high coved ceilings, carved judge's bench, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, clock and wooden jurors' chairs and benches.

While the work went on, banisters and iron railings were stored in the attic, and original furniture was stored in barns and garages throughout the county.

The courthouse is crowned with a cupola that is the signature of this city, where most of the historic buildings are still worked and lived in. Court is held in these stately rooms several times a week.

Entrepreneurs

With more than 80 historic homes, this is a town with good bones. But Dayton isn't just grande dames on the National Register. This town of about 2,700 also has entrepreneurs and residents willing to take a risk.

Businesses taxed themselves to pay for much of the improvements to Dayton's major thoroughfare, Main Street, from sidewalks to street trees, benches and antique lighting. They toughed it out for more than three months, closing Main Street to repave it with concrete.

Residents rejected gimmicks like fancy brick trim in the sidewalks, or making Dayton into a theme town. "We wanted to be who we are," said Marcene Hendrickson, a resident since 1968 who helped drive the revitalization of Main Street.

Business owners like Bruce and Heather Hiebert, owners of the Patit Creek Restaurant, took a chance on Dayton before it was cool, with Bruce offering gourmet cooking amid the wheat fields long before places like Walla Walla proved it would pay. Sumptuous filet mignon draped in a cream and cognac reduction sauce studded with green peppercorns; chicken Riesling, golden and redolent with fresh herbs; a wine list that includes Leonetti Cellars and other standouts of the Walla Walla Valley — it's all in a day's work for the Hieberts, at it for 27 years in a little green cottage hard by the highway, with just 10 tables. For years, it's been one of this state's more highly rated restaurants east of the Cascades.

By now, Patit Creek has new company in the crafting of fine food. At Dayton's Monteillet Fromagerie, owners Joan and Pierre-Louis Monteillet make artisan cheese from cultures imported from France, using the milk of their own pampered herd of alpine goats and dairy sheep.

The Monteillets offer tours of the farm on weekends or by appointment, offering tastes of some of the Walla Walla Valley's best wines with rustic bread and their creamy, complex cheeses, crafted by hand in an immaculate kitchen just off the tasting-room floor.

Theirs is one of the first artisanal cheese facilities in the area, from Dayton to Walla Walla. With sleepy-eyed sheep and elegant goats patrolled by fluffy stock dogs and Sassy, the llama, the Monteillet Fromagerie is a gourmet mecca.

The flock's high-butterfat milk makes a creamy cheese with no additives, antibiotics or preservatives. Lots of time and care are the only additives in this cheese, sold in Seattle farmers markets, specialty food stores and some of the city's finest restaurants.

The Monteillets, like the owners of the Book and Brew, are former wheat farmers who saw they could invest in a new future for this town, and for themselves.

"It makes you feel like not just cogs in the wheel of life," Joan Monteillet said. "In a small town, you can make a consensus to make a difference."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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