Historic Rugby, Tennessee: Utopia on the Cumberland Plateau
In the Hills of Tennessee
At the southern gateway to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area inTennessee lies the historic town of Rugby.
Driving in to 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.
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 It 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.
Struggle and Decline
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 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 Dream Lives On
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
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?