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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Tennessee Mountains

By Vernon and Cathy Summerlin

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Tennessee Mountains > Upper Cumberland Plateau > Historic Rugby

Historic Rugby

The picturesque community of Rugby is situated in the forest at the edge of the southern part of the BSFNRRA. Several of the historic buildings are open to the public for tours, including the home of the founder of the last English colony in the United States.

Rugby was founded in 1880 on 75,000 acres of land on the rugged Cumberland Plateau by Thomas Hughes with the financial support of several investors.

Born in 1822 in Uffington, England, Hughes attended England's Rugby School and later wrote the best-selling novel, Tom Brown's School Days about his experiences at Rugby. Hughes was inspired by headmaster Thomas Arnold, an education reformer. An elected member of Parliament, Hughes founded trade unions in England, but eventually turned his attention toward the "second sons" of British aristocrats who, by tradition, did not share in their families' accumulated wealth.

Many found themselves poorly prepared to earn a living and forbidden by social convention from seeking their fortune in any occupation that their family considered an embarrassment.

Hughes envisioned a place where these younger sons could use their natural talents in business, trade, or manual arts without social restrictions while preserving many cultural aspects of the society into which they'd been born. By 1879, Hughes was offering younger sons and others wishing to start over in America room and board, the opportunity to be taught to farm by a competent teacher, and loans to purchase land in Rugby.

It was a long and arduous journey to remote Rugby on the Cumberland Plateau, but colonists began to arrive by train at a station about 7 miles from Rugby in 1880. In October 1880, the town officially opened and Hughes's speech talked of "this lovely corner of God's earth" and treating it "lovingly and reverently."

The British Board of Aid to Landownership, the governing board of the colony, set aside park lands, developed bridle trails, and generally encouraged the colonists to explore and enjoy the beauty of the setting and the vast surrounding forest.

Among the first organizations formed was the Library and Reading Room Society. Thousands of books were donated to the colony in honor of Hughes by various publishing houses and private individuals. Of these, 7,000 volumes published between 1687 and 1899 remain in the beautiful Hughes library, one of the finest collections of Victorian literature in America.

Although Thomas Hughes never lived in Rugby, he made several long visits. He stayed with his mother, Margaret Hughes, the unofficial first lady of Rugby, until he built his own home, Kingstone Lisle, in 1884. Kingstone Lisle is open to the public for tours. Margaret Hughes lived in Rugby until her death in 1887. Her grave is located near the trailhead to the Gentlemen's Swimming Hole in Laurel Dale Cemetery.

At its peak, Rugby had more than 70 buildings and a lively social scene, but many of the colonists were unsuited for the hard work needed to tame the Cumberland Plateau wilderness. The board improved the treacherous road from the railroad station to Rugby and built a fine hotel, the Tabard Inn, but misfortune dogged the colony. The severe first winter was soon followed by a typhoid epidemic, a summer drought, and a devastating fire that destroyed the Tabard Inn.

Although its fortunes waned, Rugby was never deserted. Children of the original colonists, Will and Sarah Walton, cared for the remaining buildings until their deaths in the 1950s.

In 1964, a young schoolboy named Brian Stagg visited Rugby and dreamed of preserving and restoring the village. In 1966, the 18-year-old became the director of the nonprofit Rugby Restoration Association and served the community until his death 10 years later. His dreams for Rugby, like those of Hughes before him, live on. Today, Brian's sister, Barbara Stagg continues her brother's work.

Perhaps poet Lois Walker Johnson, in speaking of Rugby, said it best: "…No dream is dead that leaves an afterglow."

Today more than 20 historic structures remain in Rugby. Several are open for tours daily, except Christmas Day and New Years Day. All tours begin at the Schoolhouse Visitor Center. The Harrow Road Cafe is open daily and serves specialties like Bubble and Squeak (sauteed mashed potatoes with cabbage) with or without bangers (grilled sausages). Overnight accommodations are available at the historic Newbury House Bed and Breakfast.

There are three major annual events: the Rugby Spring Music and Crafts Festival, the Annual Rugby Pilgrimage, and Christmas at Rugby.

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Published (print): 1999, Published (Web): January 2003, ISBN: 1-56352-475-9
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