Just when you think you've got Tennessee figured out, along comes Rugby. Back in the 1880s an author and social reformer from England named Thomas Hughes started a colony in America for the younger sons of wealthy English families (in those days, older sons in England inherited everything, while younger sons often had difficulty finding a life of their own).
Hughes chose a remote piece of land on the Cumberland Plateau and started planning and promoting the venture. He named it Rugby after the place he went to school as a boy,
At its peak Rugby had 65 buildings, more than 350 residents, a large inn (or hotel), a weekly newspaper, tennis courts, and even a factory that canned tomatoes.
But within about a decade it became obvious that the settlement of Rugby wasn't working out. Most of Rugby's original settlers died or moved away.
Today many of Rugby's original structures are still there. Some of the people who live in or near the town of Rugby have preserved those structures, built new ones that blend in with the old, and developed a visitor's center that retells the story of Rugby.
Today, some people vacation here and stay in the same structures, walk the trails, and even take a dip in the same swimming hole as Rugby's original settlers.
We're going to show you around a bit.
At the center of Rugby you will find an old schoolhouse building and a visitor's center. At the visitor center you can see a fabulous new movie that tells the complete story of Rugby -- including not only what occurred in the 1880s but also how it was that Rugby became appreciated since that time.
As you watch the film, here are three good questions to keep in mind:
What was the original idea Thomas Hughes had when he founded this place?
What was life like for people who lived here in the 1880s?
What were some of the reasons the community did not work out the way Hughes hoped?
After you've gone to the visitor's center you can go on a guided tour, where you will learn all about three important historic structures: Christ Church Episcopal Church, Kingston Lisle (the home that Thomas Hughes built for himself), and the Thomas Hughes Library.
The church may be the prettiest little house of worship in Tennessee. It has been used continuously as an active church since it was built in 1887.
Our favorite part of the tour was the library.
The founders of Rugby thought that the people who lived here would read quite a bit, and when you drive to this remote corner of Tennessee you are taken back by how many books there are here. With 7,000 volumes, this is one of the largest collections of 19th century (or, Victorian) you'll find outside of England.
As best we can tell, the reason there are so many old books here is that publishers donated books to the Rugby colony because it was so well publicized. It's practically a miracle that this library is still in such good shape. But when you are visiting the library they do ask that you please don't touch the books, because they are fragile.
After the tour you will go into the schoolhouse building, where you will find a small Rugby museum. This is a good place to learn the detailed story of Rugby; to see pictures of Rugby; to learn more about what happened here and why. This is not a simple story, and to this day there are differences of opinion about why Rugby did not meet its original expectations.
One reason Rugby is such an interesting chapter of Tennessee history is that it was so well documented. There are literally hundreds of photographs of old Rugby, which is very unusual when you remember that this place was in its heyday in the 1880s.
Even after you've been through the museum, and the visitor's center, and the various parts of the guided tour, there is still plenty more to see at Rugby. For instance, there is a restaurant and shop (known as the Commissary Museum Store). There are old houses located here and there (but most of them are owned privately, so please don't wander into people's yards).
There's also a wonderful old cemetery and a short trail that leads
you down to a swimming hole. If you've got time and energy we strongly recommend it. By the way, the swimming hole is actually located in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area.