History books consider it a “failed utopia.” When Rugby, Tennessee, was founded in 1880, it was envisioned as a community free from the bounds of traditional social classes and structures. The author Thomas Hughes conceived a place where the younger sons of English nobility, the ones who were set to inherit nothing by the laws of primogeniture, could build lives of their own design. In just a few years, over 60 Victorian buildings and 300 full-time residents comprised Rugby’s heyday, but by 1900, much of the community had left, pushed away by disease, multiple devastating fires, and a general lack of skill and knowledge required to develop sustainable agriculture on the region’s rugged land.
We were invited to this village, sequestered in the rural, empty acres of the Cumberland Plateau, by my friend Hannah, a child of Rugby who grew up in one of its historic homes and now serves on the Historic Rugby Board of Directors. She had been persuading me to visit for at least two years. “It’s such a unique, weird, wonderful place with the most amazing people,” she promised. We finally made it happen over a weekend in mid-April; Rugby’s “season opener” had been just a few weeks prior, and Spring was beginning to make its appearance.
With just one main thoroughfare, it’s possible a first-time visitor to Rugby would bypass it entirely, driving right out of town without ever realizing they’d entered it. This is especially true in the case of an after-hours arrival like ours; with no streetlights, we depended on Google Maps to gain our bearings outside the beam of our headlights.
We were booked in Pioneer Cottage for the weekend, one of the lodging options owned and operated by the village. It was built in 1880, the first frame structure of the newly-settled Rugby, and still provides overnight accommodations to visitors. Upon entering, it’s like a step back in time–the smell of aged wood, the creaks of old floor boards, timepiece furniture, and relics on display. Signs of modernity (a TV and DVD player, a coffee maker, an updated bathroom) are tucked away, unobtrusive but available for comfort. The cottage is perfect for families or larger groups; it boasts three bedrooms (two of them upstairs; five beds total), an expansive front porch, and a spacious screened-in porch. And, it’s dog-friendly!
Our weekend happened to be one of Rugby’s fullest on the calendar; on that Saturday, there was to be a morning guided hike, afternoon author reading and lecture, and evening Rugby Irish Road Bowling Competition. But before we could get into any of those activities, we had to eat.
I had been instructed to head to R. M. Brooks, the general store located at the western edge of town, for its Saturday morning hot breakfast. We had been watching as folks sauntered along the walking path past our cottage, as if following a morning ritual. I wondered if their destination was perhaps the same as ours; when we arrived (by car–a slightly long walk for hungry toddler legs), my suspicions were confirmed. The store’s check-out counter takes food orders all day on Saturdays; walk to the back of the store, and the space opens up into a huge dining area. It was a little bit like those movie scenes, when the character walks into a biker bar and the music stops as everyone turns their heads; but in this case, we immediately felt the Rugby welcome. Locals had already converged for their morning meal, chatting over coffee and greeting each other, and us, across tables.
“It has a history of welcoming everyone,” says Lindsay Ferrier. She’s been visiting Rugby for over 20 years and is heavily involved in its community and social media outreach. The 19th-century highbrow English society that the younger noble sons were escaping was judgmental of trade and labor-based jobs; they were deemed beneath the expected standard of living, thus limiting the job prospects of those born into a certain social class. Thomas Hughes envisioned Rugby as a community in which people could shed those constraints. It would be a cooperative community thriving with culture, one that welcomed anyone who adhered to these core beliefs.
After our breakfast, we joined one of the village’s present-day regular social gatherings–the 3rd Saturday Nature Hike hosted by the Friends of Rugby State Natural Area. The village is surrounded by protected lands of the Cumberland Plateau–Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Colditz Cove State Natural Area, Scott State Forest, Pickett and Frozen Head State Parks are all within a quick drive; it would be remiss to visit Rugby and not explore the outdoors. The 3rd Saturday hike is open to everyone and meets at the Visitor Center at 10am local time. Our guide was Lisa Huff, an experienced ecologist who manages over 20 state natural areas in East Tennessee. With Spring in bloom, Lisa helped our group find and identify many of the native wildflowers we found popping out of the ground. Our kids were troopers throughout our two-hour hike and sufficiently exhausted by the time we returned home for lunch and a rest.
In establishing itself and carrying out Hughes’ vision, Rugby in the 1880s exploded with building and cultural development. The village constructed a public library, established a print shop and its own publications, founded social and athletic clubs, and built its own Episcopal Church that, 140 years later, still hosts weekly Sunday service. The best way to peek at this history is through its daily walking tours (check website or call for the most up-to-date schedule.) Once we’d recovered from the morning, we hopped onto the 1:00 tour with historic interpreter Brian Whitson, who led us around and into the Kingstone Lisle (1884), Christ Church Episcopal (1887), Thomas Hughes Free Public Library (1882), and Rugby Schoolhouse (1907).
Historic Rugby employs a small six-person staff, but many of the activities and offerings are run by community members. Catch a free tour of the 19th century Print Shop (available on weekends) and you’ll meet Pete, a volunteer who drives 45 minutes multiple times a week to share Rugby’s publishing history. I love this kind of hands-on history, but my five-year-old was CAPTIVATED by it–and thrilled when she walked away with custom bookmarks printed with her name.
It’s hard to believe we (especially the kids) still had energy after such a busy day thus far, but the best was yet to come. Our visit had been strategically planned to occur on a weekend that offered Rugby Irish Road Bowling. This is a sport (originating in Ireland, per its name) that involves teams hurling a solid, metal cannonball down a predetermined course of (usually) country roads. Team members take turns with the toss; the team who completes the course in the fewest number of throws is the winner. Irish road bowling was brought to Rugby in the 2010s, and now, two or three times a month during the open season, anyone is welcome to join in the competition. The route takes bowlers down Rugby Parkway, from the Print Shop to just past Pioneer Cottage, and back. Teams are formed, and, with a drink in hand, you find yourself suddenly capable of trash talking total strangers and cheering loudly at the outcome of a game you had no clue existed just 15 minutes prior.
“It’s a place where you can let your hair down,” says Robb Goldwire, a local who’s fairly new to Rugby; he and his husband, Michael, bought a dated home in the community just before the pandemic, which then gave them ample time to renovate. During our mid-game conversations, it took hardly any time to recognize I was speaking to the road bowling trash-talking master himself. (Thankfully, we were on the same team. ) “No one is going to judge you for loud voices and ridiculous arguments,” he said–which is fortunate, because we were not pleased about our loss.
As I chatted with the community and heard stories of this village and its people, we received no fewer than three separate invitations to the road bowling “after party”–and only one of them was the actual host. We were welcomed into the 1880 home of Tony Woodall, Historic Rugby Board Chair, and his wife Kara Kemp, professional and creative coach and founder of Rugby’s now-annual Adult Summer Camp. Our kids ran in and out of the house, exploring outside, as we shared drinks and conversation. People continued to arrive over the next couple of hours until it seemed like the whole village was present–and despite having known these people for less than 24 hours, it felt like we belonged. I don’t think we will ever lack a place to stay. “You could stand outside and yell, asking for a bed for the night, and someone would answer,” promises Robb. To me, that indicates Thomas Hughes’ utopian dream is very much thriving in 2023.
Thank you to Historic Rugby Village for generously providing our overnight accommodations for this press trip.
PLAN YOUR VISIT!
Canteen and Cottage Catering
Historic Village Tour
Gentleman’s Swimming Hole
Print Shop Tour and Demo
Historic Rugby Irish Road Bowling
Historic Rugby After Dark Tours and Investigations
Check out the Historic Rugby Village website for the full schedule and seasonal events!
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