Back to list

130 Years of History in the Joshua Wilton House

October 25, 2018 by Kim Kirk

The Joshua Wilton House, built in 1888, has 130 years of stories to tell. If the walls could talk in this timeless bed-and-breakfast, they would reveal the character of Joshua Wilton – the influential man who built the Victorian house not long after the Civil War – and the families and boarders that occupied the home for years to come. Most entertaining though would be the tales of the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) parties that took over the house in the 1970’s before it became the award-winning restaurant and B&B that it is today. 

Joshua Wilton was vital to helping establish and strengthen Harrisonburg’s infrastructure. He set up a foundry, brought electricity into the Valley and was president of the First Virginia Bank. With the help of local artisans, he worked to construct The Joshua Wilton House –  unknown of the house’s potential and over a century worth of memories that would decorate its walls.

The Wilton family occupied the home for about 40 years until it was sold to the Shank family. During the Great Depression in the 20s and 30s, it became a boarding house. And later, it became the quintessential frat house.

The TKE fraternity members were notoriously rambunctious even before Animal House made its debut onto the screen. Warm weather meant parties on the lawn and when the pipes froze in the winter, they would ice-skate on the parquet floors. When the fraternity left the house, one of the members took one of the mantles from the double-sided fireplace as a token of his college days. Thirty years later, he returned it to the Joshua Wilton House. The mantle now sits in it’s original place, adorned with cigarette burns and years of wear that symbolize the TKE’s ever-present life in the house. Next summer, the fraternity will return to the Wilton House to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

In 1986, the Moore family purchased the home and took two years to restore it to its original grandeur. They turned it into a business by adding a restaurant kitchen, sun room, and brick patio. The Joshua Wilton House Inn & Restaurant opened in May of 1988 on the one-hundredth anniversary of the house and is currently celebrating their 30th anniversary.

The Joshua Wilton House has managed to withstand 130 years of history, yet is still in impeccable condition thanks to owner Jeff Hill and his staff. “We see ourselves as caretakers of this piece of history,” says Bill Daulton, General Manager of the Joshua Wilton House. While they are often focused on making renovations to the house to maintain its upkeep , their main goal is to hold onto the historical elements that make this house so special and showcase that to the public. “It’s a proud moment for us when someone comes into the house and they see an original piece of the house that is still here from when they were little.”

When chunks of the 130-year old slate began falling off the roof last year, it prompted some large renovations, including a new HVAC system and updated kitchen equipment. The renovations continued earlier this year with new paint, carpeting, and hardwood floors. Jeff Hill and his staff are particularly excited about this round of renovations. While many of the previous updates were structural, this time around the changes are tangible and guests see the updates that are being made.

Plans are still ahead for continuing to create a unique dining experience for guests. They are in the process of creating themed dining rooms that will maintain the Victorian feel. One of the dining rooms will be transformed into a library and will feature floor-to-ceiling books from Joshua Wilton’s great granddaughter. The books were purchased at an estate sale after she passed, along with the original wood stove from Joshua Wilton’s foundry.

Photo: Katie Schmid of The Commoneer

In addition to the maintenance of the house, the Joshua Wilton House is constantly expanding their offerings from private events to a focus on wine that’s earned them a 2018 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for their diverse and appealing wine list. On the heels of this recent award is the launch of the Wilton Wine Club where you can enjoy their latest finds as well as new varietals and up and coming wine regions at discounted prices. With this club on the rise, the community can expect more wine-related events, fun outings, and other special perks for wine club members in the near future.

If you haven’t visited the Joshua Wilton House lately, make sure to check out their weekly specials, including Date Night Tuesday and Wilton Wednesday.