The Rugby Colony - An Aspiring Utopia
Nestled among tall pines and oaks just south of the Big South Fork National Park, lies Historic Rugby, Tennessee; a British-founded village whose Utopian dream of a better life in America has never quite died.
British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes, famous for his classic, TOM BROWN'S SCHOOLDAYS, dedicated the Rugby Colony amid great fanfare on October 5, 1880. He envisioned his new community as a place where those who wished could build a strong agricultural community through cooperative enterprise, while maintaining a cultured, Christian lifestyle, free of the rigid class distinctions that prevailed in Britain. The idea for the colony grew out of Hughes' concern for the younger sons of landed British families. Under the custom of primogeniture, the eldest son usually inherited everything, leaving the younger sons with only a few socially accepted occupations in England. In America, Hughes believed, these young men's energies and talents could be directed toward community building through agriculture. The town site and surrounding lands were chosen in part because the newly built Cincinnati-Southern Railroad had just completed a major line to Chattanooga opening up this part of the Cumberland Plateau.
During the 1880's, Rugby both flourished and floundered, attracting wide-spread attention on two continents and hundreds of hopeful settlers from both Britain and other parts of America. By 1884, Hughes' vision seemed bent on becoming a thriving reality. An English agriculturalist had been employed to help train new colonists. Some 70 graceful Victorian buildings had been constructed on the town site, and over 300 residents enjoyed the rustic yet culturally refined atmosphere of this "New Jerusalem." Literary societies and drama clubs were established. Lawn tennis grounds were laid out and used frequently. Colonists and visitors enjoyed rugby football, horseback riding, croquet and swimming in the clear flowing rivers surrounding the town site. The grand Tabard Inn, named for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, soon became the social center of the colony. The Thomas Hughes Public Library, with thousands of volumes donated by admirers and publishers, was the pride of the colony. Rugby printed its own weekly newspaper, and general stores, stables, sawmills, boarding houses, a drug store, dairy and butcher shop were all in operation. During this heyday period two trains a day ran to Cincinnati, providing a link to goods, services, and entertainment for all the Rugby colonists and the town's many visitors. Press in both America and Europe carried updates on the colony's progress and problems.
But a typhoid epidemic, which claimed seven lives in 1881, did nothing for the colony's Utopian image or its credit rating. In addition, financial troubles, land title problems and unusually severe winters gradually brought about Rugby's decline. The Tabard Inn burned in 1884, beginning the colony's decline. Thomas Hughes--whose aged mother Madam Hughes, his brother Hastings and niece Emily, lived in Rugby during its early years--managed to spend only a month or so each year in the colony. He poured more than $75,000 of his own money into the effort to community-build in the wilderness. But in spite of Rugby's obvious problems and failures, Hughes never gave up hope for the colony's future. In a letter to some of the remaining settlers shortly before his death in 1896, Hughes wrote poignantly: "I can't help feeling and believing that good seed was sown when Rugby was founded and someday the reapers, whoever they may be, will come along with joy bearing heavy sheaves with them."
By 1900, many of the original colonists had left, most for other parts of America. Though Rugby declined, it was never deserted. Individual residents, some children of original colonists, struggled over many decades to keep its fascinating heritage alive and its surviving buildings and lands cared for.