A slant of late afternoon light falls across the stacks at the Thomas Hughes Free Public Library, illuminating the elaborate gold-leaf lettering on the book spines in the Victorian collection. Among the nearly 7,000 volumes here — donated by the leading publishers of the late 19th century — not a single one was printed after 1900. It’s an antique bibliophile’s dream, this jewel box of a reading room, so unexpected on a back road about 90 minutes outside Knoxville. But it was once part of a bigger dream (one that never quite came true) that brought prominent Englishmen here to the Cumberland Plateau in the 1880s, leaving an imprint that’s still felt today.
A strange confluence of events created Rugby, a remote outpost of Queen Victoria’s empire in Tennessee’s rugged northeast corner. When a recession left scores of factory workers unemployed in the Northeastern United States in the 1870s, investors bought up land to lure them South with promises of independent lives on farms. Word of this enterprise somehow spread to England and reached the novelist, social reformer and Member of Parliament, Thomas Hughes.
Hughes was one of the first international literary superstars. His 1857 novel “Tom Brown’s School Days” (based on his time at the prestigious Rugby boarding school) was a bestseller, called the “best book ever written for boys.” It spawned the “boarding school book” genre that today includes the “Harry Potter” books. A champion for the chronically underemployed “second sons” of English’s upper classes, Hughes was convinced that England’s “surplus stock of young men” could pursue simple but fulfilling agrarian livelihoods in the U.S. He invested in the creation of a “colony” here, with an inn, church, store and residences, to be named Rugby after his alma mater.
Prospects initially looked bright. The new Cincinnati-Chattanooga railroad promised to bring prosperity to the South and tourists and colonists to Rugby. Greeted with both skepticism and fanfare in the international press in 1880, the colony enjoyed modest early success, although fewer than half of the residents were the upper class Englishmen Hughes had hoped to attract, and the middle-class Americans who arrived had no farming experience.
Problems surfaced almost immediately. There were disputes over property titles. Lawn tennis and literary clubs thrived, but no one was prepared for the summer drought and unusually harsh winter. In the first year, typhoid fever (originating from the well at the inn) killed seven people. Then the inn burned down, and the one built to replace it also burned, 15 years later. Colonists pulled up stakes and new ones never took their place. As the colony faded, prospectors moved in for mining and timber operations, moving on again when the resources were exhausted.
In the 1960s, after decades of decline, an area teen spearheaded an effort to restore Rugby and get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area was developed in the ’70s, Rugby’s preservation began to stabilize.
Today, 17 of the town’s original 65-plus buildings remain. Aside from the library, the civic buildings include the Rugby Schoolhouse (a 1907 addition built to replace the burned-down original) and Christ Church Episcopal, in continual use since 1887. Inside, you’ll find an 1849 harmonium reed organ (no longer working) and a baptismal font carved by a woodworker who also made a throne for queen Victoria. The charming Rugby Printing Works isn’t original to the town; the 1887 structure was moved to its current location from nearby Deer Lodge, but its hand-operated press is authentic to the period.
With mansard roofs and milk-painted siding in mustard yellows and celery greens, the remaining Rugby residences, with romantic names like Wren’s Nest and Percy Cottage, are not ornate, high Victorian gothic confections, but modest English rural style houses. Built for Hughes in 1884, Kingstone Lisle cottage contains many original furnishings imported to Rugby for his mother. While the town is billed as a living history village, there’s something more intimate here than your typical living history museum. Hughes’ desk, with its green baize blotter and stack of yellowing letters, looks as though he’s just stepped away. The house appears preserved rather than staged and curated — there are no roped off areas and the interpretation is provided through a tour guide, not signage.
The Historic Newbury House retains its original purpose as lodging. It’s now a bed and breakfast with one suite and five rooms named after original colonists. Tthe Charles Oldfield room is said to be haunted by its namesake. Across the street, the reconstructed Alexander-Perrigo House, also originally a boarding house, now houses Spirit of Red Hill Nature Art and Oddiments and a single-room bed and breakfast. The Commissary sells products imported from England along with local arts and crafts and vintage children’s toys. The town holds annual English-themed events, such as the spring maypole dance and December Christmas caroling.
At the edge of town, Laurel Dale Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the early colonists, including Margaret Hughes, Thomas’ intrepid mother who made the trek from England to eastern Tennessee when she was 83 years old, dying here seven years later. Across from the cemetery is the entrance to the Rugby Trailhead, leading to some of the area’s most popular hikes.
In contrast to Rugby’s tidy Victorian order, the town is surrounded by wilderness. There are two hiking options along the Meeting of the Waters loop trail that quickly dips into Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. On the mostly gentle, less than half-mile descent to the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole, a spur trail lets you follow in the footsteps of the colonists to a quiet stretch of the Clear Fork River that is indeed perfect for swimming. Continue along the loop and you’ll come to the boulder-strewn Meeting of the Waters, the junction of the Clear Fork and White Oak Creek. Near the Visitor’s Center, the Rugby State Natural area offers another loop trail to the ruins of a homesteader site that predates Rugby by several decades.
While Rugby never became the thriving city its founders hoped for, its failure has in a way become its success. “The rush of the busy world never troubles Rugby,” the town’s pastor wrote in its early days. That’s still at the heart of its appeal today.
IF YOU GO
Rugby, Tennessee, is 243 miles north of Atlanta and takes about 4 hours, 20 minutes to drive. It’s 2.5 hours north of Chattanooga and 90 minutes west of Knoxville.
Where to Stay
Historic Newbury House. This five-room, one suite bed and breakfast is a cozy step back in time in the heart of the village. $89 and up. 1331 Rugby Parkway, 423-628-2441, www.historicrugby.org/newbury-house
Percy Cottage and Pioneer Cottage. Self-catering cottages can accommodate five and eight people respectively in comfortable but slightly rustic style. $119 and up. Rugby Parkway, 423-628-2441, www.historicrugby.org/about-lodging
Bensted Bedstead. Located above the Spirit of Red Hill store, this accessible single room is offered with or without breakfast at Harrow Road Café across the street. $70 and up. 1490 Rugby Parkway, Robbins. 423-628-5562, www.spiritofredhill.com
Where to Eat
Harrow Road Café. The only game in town, the café offers breakfast, lunch and dinner four days a week, featuring sandwiches, wraps, pasta, salads and English entrees such as fish and chips and cottage pie. Entrees $11-$18. 5545 Rugby Hwy, Rugby. 423-628-2350, www.historicrugby.org/harrow-road-cafe
Rugby Visitor’s Centre and Theatre. Guided tours Thursday-Sunday and audio self-guided tours available. 5517 Rugby Highway, Rugby. 423-628-2441, historicrugby.org
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