Rugby, Tennessee: A Place Apart
by Kathy Riley Williams
Rugby, Tennessee is best in the morning, when the mist drifts from the stands of oak and pine that surround the village, and the ghosts of the town founders are up and walking about.
Tourist brochures for Rugby proclaim that it is "a place apart" from the rest of the world. This seems to have been the philosophical, and geographical, pilings upon which the town was built. If one heads west on Tennessee Highway 52, the Victorian hamlet seemingly appears from nowhere, springing up from what's left of the mid-growth forest that surrounds it.
Founded by a group of expatriated Brits in the 1880s, the sophisticated cluster of board-and-batten houses, lodges, and public buildings was the result of the creative vision of its founder, Thomas Hughes. Hughes, a British author and reformer best known for his novel, John Brown's School Days, sought to build a utopian community in the still relatively wild hills of late-nineteenth-century Tennessee. Today, Rugby attracts Anglophiles, historians, architecture buffs, lovers of Victoriana, and busloads of golden-years parents spending the kids' inheritance.
Begin a tour of the village in the Schoolhouse Visitors Center. A brief, interesting (really!) film documenting the village's founding -- and ultimate failure -- builds an historical narrative through which to view the town. The visitor's center also houses a number of historical gewgaws, including photographs, letters, and first-edition copies of John Brown's School Days, the sell of which helped Hughes to realize his vision.
A ten- to fifteen-minute stroll along Central Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, is a good way to continue your visit. Ambling past the gem-like Christ Church Episcopal, the utilitarian Rugby Commissary, and the Printing Works will give a visitor a feel for how to tackle an exploration of the village. Don't, however, neglect the village's side streets, where a number of its original houses still stand. Although most of them remain private residences viewable only from the street, their architectural purity makes them worth a gander.
If you want a peek inside one of Rugby's historic homes, you'll have to sign up in the visitor's center for the tour, which includes Kingston Lisle, built as Hughes's private residence. Or opt to stay in one of the village's bed and breakfast inns, most of which are outfitted in period appropriate antiques.
The Historic Rugby Foundation manages three of the inns: Percy Cottage, a replica of one of Rugby's original buildings, offers an upstairs suite to visitors. The book-filled Newbury House was built as a guest lodge in 1880 and continues to shelter contemporary visitors. But Pioneer Cottage may be the best place for history buffs to rest their weary brains. It was the first frame house built in Rugby and the place where Thomas Hughes slept on his first stay in Rugby.
Not-to-be-missed sites to visit include the aforementioned Christ Church Episcopal and the Thomas Hughes Public Library. The church is a perfect example of American Carpenter Gothic architecture and remains virtually untarnished by modernization. Its lovely shell-pink exterior matches its original nineteenth-century coloring. Original light fixtures and pews illuminated the worship and cradled the bottoms of the town founders. Carved trefoil designs, gothic-style stain glass windows, and a rosewood organ complete the ambience. For those visitors who would like to worship among the ghosts of eminent Victorians, services are held every Sunday at 11:00 a.m.
The Thomas Hughes Public Library is, hands down, the most astounding structure in town. Its floor-to-ceiling shelving is the repository for more than 7,000 volumes of late-Victorian word craft. Big-city publishers in far off New York, Boston, and Cincinnati donated a majority of the books to the citizens of Rugby. A large percentage of the tomes are first editions. Although visitors are not permitted to handle the volumes, the library's compact space makes it possible for bibliophiles to engage in some up close and personal, pen and ink inspired etching.
Strolling and book lust are sure to work up an appetite. Rugby offers the itinerant visitor the Harrow Road Cafe. The modern cafe, built in 1985, is named for Rugby's original restaurant, which stood a few feet away from its present incarnation. The cafe's menu is designed to give visitors a taste of British cuisine. Such dishes as Welsh rarebit, bangers and mash, and apple dumplings appeal to visitors. Culinary stereotypes are a horrible perpetuation. Suffice it to say, then, that the food at the Harrow Road Cafe is warm and filling. It is served up in a cozy dining room replete with crackling fireplace and small wooden tables tucked between high-backed benches. The waitstaff are friendly, gracious, and pleasantly garrulous. On a rainy afternoon in Tennessee, a cup of tea in the fire-warmed dining room is just the thing to lift one's spirits.
Speaking of spirits: Rugby's founding mothers and fathers lie moldering in Laurel Dale Cemetery, a peaceful patch of green found down a side road at the edge of the village. There are always those folks who think visiting cemeteries is macabre at best, weird at worst. Still, there is no denying they are fabulous repositories of local history and custom. Tourist brochures for Rugby encourage visitors to stop in and pay their respects.
Surrounded by a stand of oak, ash and dogwood, the chiseled surnames of Rugby's founding families dot a small rise. Many of the names may still be heard on the streets of Rugby and surrounding communities. They roll off the tongue in poetic syllables: Frogg, Gilliat, Bensted, Wellman, Oldfield, Dimling, Fletcher. Other family names are lost to the living, their metal markers and paper inserts rotted into oblivion in the humidity that rises from the ground or falls from the sky on final places of repose.
One of the more interesting, and poignant, stones is dedicated to Andrew B. Burroughs "born in New Jersey/Dec. 6, 1850/Drowned in Clear Fork March 27, 1886." There, in a nutshell, is the story of one man who sought to find his utopia in the semi-civilized woodlands of Tennessee.
Historic Rugby, Tennessee
© 2003, Kathy Riley Williams, All Rights Reserved