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  • Writer's pictureBetty Girardeau

Rugby, Tennessee, 1880-1887

As promised, I want to share a bit with you about where I went on Sunday. Far up near the top of the Cumberland Plateau is an amazing little village which is caught in a time warp. Rugby was founded in 1880 as a British colony in the United States by Thomas Hughes. Yes, you read that correctly: a British colony!. Hughes was already a best-selling author at the time, having written “Tom Brown’s School Days,” a novel based on a British boarding school much like the one he had attended. More than just an author, though, Hughes was a reformer who was much influenced by the current ideas of creating a utopian society. He envisioned the Rugby colony as a special place for England’s second sons, who typically inherited nothing, to come, acquire land, and get a fresh start. Hughes must have done a pretty good job initially selling the idea of this utopian community, based on the concepts of hard work, cooperation, and compassion for others, because it captured the imagination of not just English second sons, but those of people around the world. In its heyday, the population was more than 400 and there were 65 frame buildings and houses. The initial success of the community seems especially surprising given its seemingly remote location. While today most of the roads that take you there are four-laned, you ultimately end up on relatively narrow, twisting mountain ones. I have been to Rugby twice, and I am still impressed with how hardy these dream-filled settlers were to brave a trip into the wilds with the idea of making it home. But the dream was short lived and probably doomed from the beginning. The English gentlemen who came did not have a clue how to make a living on their own, though they quickly had established a Men’s Social Club. Trying to create farms and businesses proved difficult even for those who had come from New England and other countries in Europe. In the summer of 1881, the village was ravaged by typhoid fever. And the promised railroad spur never materialized. But what was accomplished during its few golden years is still pretty amazing. There was a large hotel, a commissary, school, Episcopal Church, and most amazing of all, a 7000 volume public library. Today all of these except the hotel remaining. Touring the library alone is almost worth the trip to Rugby. Beautifully catalogued, the books remain in almost perfect condition more than one hundred years later. The building, though heated in winter, has never been air conditioned and never will be. The books are now used to the changes in weather, even the humidity of summer, and to put them in a climate controlled environment would likely damage them completely. Rugby is now an experience as much as a destination. Walking along its stunningly beautiful and delightfully peaceful streets, you can still see many of the original homes with a few more recent ones built to conform to the architectural styles of the late 1800’s. Local craftsmen offer their wares, ranging from original paintings and prints to antiques and handmade chairs, in several of the shops. The Historic Rugby brochure claims that a visit to the village is “surprisingly restorative.” And so it is.

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