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Historic Rugby, Tennessee: Utopia on the Cumberland Plateau

Updated on October 20, 2020
jo miller profile image

Jo Miller is a long time resident of Tennessee and seasoned traveler--to places near and far.

The Original Episcopal Church in Rugby, Tennessee

Christ Church Episcopal, Rugby, Tennessee
Christ Church Episcopal, Rugby, Tennessee | Source

In the Hills of Tennessee

At the southern gateway to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee lies the historic town of Rugby.

Driving into Rugby on a winding, twisting road, there's a sign for a local church called The New Life Apostolic Church. Further down the road, on the outskirts of Rugby, is the small, neat Christ Episcopal Church of Rugby. The juxtaposition of these two churches is a little jarring, each representing a very different era.

Early in October each year, members of the Rugby Episcopal Church host a Michaelmas Festival, complete with a British Cream Tea. I don't know much about the New Life Apostolic Church, but I doubt they have a British Cream Tea to celebrate Michaelmas.

British Cream Teas are not common in this part of the Cumberland Plateau--or in any part of Tennessee. Even the name of Rugby is a little out of place here on the Cumberland Plateau, as are the neat Victorian houses of the village. So how did this little town come to be?

How The Community of Rugby Began

Stretching across Tennessee from Alabama in to Kentucky, the Cumberland Plateau is one of the world's longest expanses of hardwood-forested plateaus, with ravines and deep hollows. Following the Cumberland River through the hills and valleys, it is a beautiful part of Tennessee. but, because of its ruggedness, early settlers came here mostly for hunting and timber. English, Scots-Irish, and German settlers who came here for free land and to make a new life settled mainly in the valleys of this beautiful country.

In 1880, Thomas Hughes, English author and social reformer, came up with the idea to establish a utopian colony and chose this part of beautiful Tennessee for the location.

Hughes came up with his dream to establish this colony because of his interest in the younger sons of the landed English gentry. The custom in England at that time was to leave estates to the oldest son, leaving the younger sons with less security in their lives and few choices for a livelihood. Hughes had first hand knowledge of this custom since he was a second son of English gentry.

The idea of sons of landed English gentry settling in the American colonies was not a new idea for this country. But a colony planned just for them was a novel idea, especially the type of colony Hughes had in mind. He envisioned a community where settlers could build a strong, cooperative agriculture community, holding on to their cultured, Christian lifestyle, but freeing themselves of the rigid class distinctions of their homeland. He espoused a type of Christian socialism with cooperative ownership of businesses.

Hughes's vision initially was just a utopian dream, but in 1880, he made it a reality. He formed a partnership and purchased land in this area after the Cincinnati Railroad opened a rail line across the Cumberland Plateau from Cincinnati to Chattanooga

Rugby Becomes a Reality

By early 1880, the layout for the town was completed and the first buildings begun, including the "Asylum" (now known as the Pioneer Cottage) the Tabbard Inn (named for the Southward hostelry in Canterbury Tales), and several residences.

Hughes traveled to Tennessee for the opening of the colony on October 5, 1980. If that day was a typical October day in Tennessee, it must have been a gorgeous day to begin a colony, with leaves just beginning to turn in the cool, crisp October air.

Hughes named the colony Rugby for his alma mater in England, scene of his famous novel, Tom Brown's School Days.

As the settlement continued, several national American publications followed it's progress. An English agriculturalist was employed to teach the residents. They built a church and a library containing over 7000 volumes. Both of these buildings still stand. They built over 65 private homes and public buildings, established a newspaper, a tennis team, a social club, a literary and dramatic society, and in 1885 a university, the Arnold School.

During its hey day there were over 300 residents living in this beautiful but fragile community on the Cumberland Plateau.

The Thomas Hughes Library in Rugby complete with the 7000 volumes donated to the colony at the time of its establishment.

Thomas Hughes Library, Rugby, Tennessee
Thomas Hughes Library, Rugby, Tennessee | Source

Struggle and Decline in Rugby

For a while, this rustic but culturally refined settlement thrived in this pristine setting. The idyllic location and lofty goals were not enough, however, to ensure the success of the colony. They were beset from the beginning with many problems.

The USA is a country of immigrants, so all across the broad expanse of our nation in its beginning, cultures from many countries rubbed up against each other. But this pristine Victorian town must have been in stark contrast to other more rustic settlements on the Plateau. Other settlers became suspicious of the Rugby settlement and there were several lawsuits over land titles almost from the beginning. This slowed the early development of the colony and some of the Rugby settlers gave up and moved away.

Besides lawsuits, the settlement also was plagued with other problems. In 1881 a typhoid epidemic killed seven residents. Financial problems and unusually severe winters made the situation even worse.

In 1884, the Tabbard Inn, the social center for the community, burned. It was rebuilt and burned again in 1889.

Thomas Hughes' aged mother, his brother Hastings and niece Emily all lived in Rugby in the early years, but Hughes himself spent only about a month each year here. Reportedly his wife did not like the venture so well and refused to leave England.

The Rugby Story on Tennessee Crossroads Television Show

The Dream Lives On in Rugby

Hughes never gave up on his project, and in a letter just before his death in 1886 he wrote to some of the remaining colonists, "I can’t help feeling and believing that good seed was sown when Rugby was founded and someday the reapers, whoever they may be, will come along with joy bearing heavy sheaves with them.”

By 1900 most of the original colonists were gone, but the community was never completely deserted. Some of the original residents, their children and other interested people struggled to keep the dream alive. They worked hard to maintain some of the buildings, especially the Episcopal Church and the Thomas Hughes Library.

In the 1960's local teenager Brian Stagg stumbled upon this deteriorating settlement and made it his lifelong project to restore it. He worked for many years with other local residents who had been involved in maintaining the buildings that had not been destroyed.

Little did Hughes know that it would be an enthusiastic local teenager who many years later became inspired enough to keep the dream alive. In 1966, along with other local workers, Brian Stagg formed the Rugby Restoration Association and began the restoration. In 1972, he got the village of Rugby and many of it's historic buildings placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Through the years this association restored many of the buildings and kept the settlement alive. In the 1970's they also worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to make Rugby the southern gateway to the newly established Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

In addition to all of his work on the restoration of the park, Brian Stagg also wrote a book called The Distant Eden: Tennessee Rugby Colony.

I've visited Rugby a couple of times, and when I hear the story of the development and later restoration of this colony, the character I am always most interested in is Brian Stagg. He's the person I'd most like to meet. What kind of teenager becomes interested in a mostly deserted English colony set in the woods on the Cumberland Plateau and works for years to restore it, and writes a book about it? A very unique person, I would say. Unfortunately, unique people sometimes have more trouble adapting to ordinary life, and in 1976, while living in one of the restored houses at Rugby, Brian took his own life.

After Brian's death, his sister Barbara Stagg took over as Executive Director of the association, and she and her husband worked for many years to further the restoration and bring the colony to national attention. Under their leadership a Visitor Centre and Theatre were built. They also spearheaded the building of a residential area based on the original town plan in the National Register Historic District called Beacon Hill. These homes are modern versions of some of the Victorian designs used in the original settlement and are privately owned.

The Gentleman's Swimming Hole at Rugby

The Gentleman's Swimming Hole at Rugby
The Gentleman's Swimming Hole at Rugby | Source

Rugby Today

Rugby is once again a thriving community. Several privately owned residences have been built in Beacon Hill and several residents live there, either full or part time, helping to keep some of the traditions of the original colony alive. In Historic Rugby there are guided tours, dining, shopping, lodging, and many activities to enjoy year round.

In 1882, there was a note in The Rugbeian Newspaper that said, "A café has been started in Harrow Road by a couple of enterprising young Englishmen and meals can be obtained there any time between the hours of 8am and 10pm. They have a long and varied list of comestibles and are likely to drive a roaring trade.”

The modern-day Harrow Road Cafe still drives a roaring trade, complete with Shepherd's Pie. The next time I visit Rugby I would personally like to try waffles with Muddy Pond sorghum gravy. I'm not sure what Muddy Pond sorghum gravy is, but I'm eager to find out.

For shopping enthusiasts, The Historic Rugby Commissary and Museum and several local shops offer handcrafted and unique items, some imported from England and some locally handcrafted.

The Historic Newbury House and Pioneer Cottage, both restored original buildings, are available for lodging. Percy Cottage, a reconstructed building using the original Rugby plan, is also available. Outside the historic community, just on the outskirts of Rugby, is The Grey Gables Bed & Breakfast Inn, a place with English grace and country cordiality.

The Rugby Association also plans events all during the year that range from Ghostly Gatherings to Holiday Teas, and host a writer's series with guest speakers.

Other than all the activities that Historic Rugby has to offer, the surrounding area is replete with natural wonders. You could get lost here--in a good way. Rugby is the southern gateway to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Here you can go whitewater paddling, rock climbing, horseback riding, hiking, or camping or ride a scenic railway.

Adjacent to Big South Fork is the lovely Pickett State Park, originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1942, with rustic cabins and hiking trails.

You can also visit an abandoned mining community at Blue Heron or a Mennonite community at Muddy Pond. At a local country store just outside of Rugby, owned by the same family since 1924, you can get a fried baloney sandwich or a fried pie. Makes a nice lunch, and they also serve breakfast and sell merchandise.

I plan to visit Rugby again this year for the Michaelmas Festival. It's been a while since I've had a scone. Care to join me?

Rugby, TN:
Rugby, TN 37852, USA

get directions

Pickett State Park:
Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, 4605 Pickett Park Hwy, Jamestown, TN 38556, USA

get directions

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area:
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, 4564 Leatherwood Rd, Oneida, TN 37841, USA

get directions


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    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      2 years ago from Tennessee

      Hi, Jay. There are still many Mennonites communities in this area, but I'm not aware that they were here when Rugby was established. They are very different types of communities and even if they had been here at the same time there would have been few similarities.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      As I understand it, Rugby, TN was supposed to be a Utopian Christian society. So too are the Mennonites who lived nearby. Did the two groups interact? What are the similarities and differences?

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      The Cumberland is a beautiful river. We live not too far from it.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      3 years ago

      I recently visited Kentucky and dined on the banks of the Cumberland. What a beautiful setting and the food was excellent. These small areas have so much history and well worth a visit.

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Thanks for visiting and commenting Dora. Rugby is a very unique place and a fun road trip. Hope you get to visit some day.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Certainly, would like to visit Rugby. The history is interesting and I'm sure that the town has an appealing unique culture. Both Thomas Hughes and Brian Stagg deserve universal recognition for their monumental accomplishment; and you Jo, deserve our thanks for this good story.

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Thanks, John, for the comments. Rugby is a fascinating place and I hope you get to visit soon.

    • jwmurph profile image

      John Murphree 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Jo, you have wonderfully made the settlement and history of Rugby come alive in this essay. I was intrigued by the story of Rugby and genuinely impressed with your telling of its history. I intend to go to Rugby again, since I have already been there once before, and to enjoy the sights and eats of the area. I, too, want some of that Muddy Pond gravy.

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Glad you enjoyed this, Flourish and hope you get to visit Rugby. This is just a beautiful area of Tennessee so be sure you get to see some of the surrounding area if you come.

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Bill, I love tha t library also. It has all 7000 of the original volumes.

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Thanks, Glenis. Hughes never really moved to Rugby, but visited once each year. His mother and other relatives lived here, though. Reportedly, his wife did not approve of the colonial life.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      This was thoroughly enjoyable and I would love to visit myself. The video was captivating and well worth watching. It's sad that Brian Skaggs died without seeing the success this became.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      What a wonderful tour, Jo! Thank you for letting me tag along as you shared this wonderful piece of Americana. I love the library!

    • profile image

      Glenis Rix 

      3 years ago

      Jo, I was absolutely enthralled by this article. Tom Brown's Schooldays is one of my favourite books, not least for the evocative way in which Hughes wrote in it about his village life, very close to where my sister lives. I didn't know that he moved to America and established a colony there. I am amazed. Rugby School is where the game of the same name was invented. Re Harrow Road - Harrow is also a famous public school in England. Thanks again - the article was a delight to read.

    • jo miller profile imageAUTHOR

      Jo Miller 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      That library is indeed gorgeous. Those are the original, donated books.

    • Travel-Wise profile image


      3 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this great information. The history is really interesting and that library is gorgeous!!


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