This is a guest post by author Nancy Sartor
Tennessee is a lovely state, particularly in the spring when the redbud blooms crimson, the Forsythia gold and purple clover covers the fields. The temperatures hover in the mid-sixties during daylight and the humidity is not noticeable. Add a deep blue sky with white fluffy clouds and you have a scene to delight almost any heart.
Sir Thomas Hughes, British author and reformer came to the Cumberland Plateau on just such a Spring day in 1880. The beauty of what he beheld must have delighted him as he stared out over the rolling fields with their rich black soil, noticed the rivers that would bring water to his dream village. He developed the firm belief that this was the place for the people who would soon join him.
Sir Thomas was disturbed by the situation of the youngest sons of English nobility who did not inherit any of the fortunate eldest’s fortune, were not allowed to begin a trade nor open a business. They became the scourges of English society, gambling and skirt-chasing and begging their elder sibling for enough money to sustain themselves. Sir Thomas intended to build a village in America so these young men could learn how to farm.
Transportation was an issue for most of Tennessee in 1880, but the newly built Cincinnati-Southern Railroad had just completed a major line to Chattanooga which would open this part of the Cumberland Plateau.
Important and famous news agencies such as Harper’s Bazaar carried stories about the new colony. Rugby’s first New Year’s Eve celebration was attended by some of the highest members of American society. The new-comers built nearly seventy graceful Victorian buildings by 1884. An English agriculturalist worked hard to teach the new colonists how to grow their food. Rugby’s population topped three hundred. The refinement of Rugby’s buildings and their way of life stood out in stark contrast to the rough and tumble mountain villages around them.
Rugbeans established literary societies and drama clubs, laid out lawn tennis grounds and used them often. They played Rugby football, rode horses, played croquet and swam in the clear flowing rivers. Their inn, named the Tabard Inn for the hostelry in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales became the social center of the colony. The Thomas Hughes Public Library was and is filled with thousands of volumes donated by publishers and admirers of the effort.
Rugby had its own newspaper. General stores, stables, sawmills, boarding houses, and a drug store. A dairy and butcher shop thrived in the growing community. Two trains a day ran to Cincinnati and provided links to goods, services and entertainment. Sir Thomas watched his dream unfold and must have been very satisfied with the way it was going.
Unfortunately, the typhoid epidemic in 1881 which had claimed seven lives damaged both the village’s utopian reputation and its credit rating. Additional financial troubles, land title problems and unusually severe winters gradually brought about Rugby’s decline. The Tabard Inn burned in 1884. Its replacement met the same fate in 1899. Thomas Hughes 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 build the community in the wilderness. Despite 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: “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, most of the original colonists had moved to 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, its surviving buildings and lands cared for and its story told.
The few people left in the sleepy village from the turn of the century into the 1960’s were descendants from the original colonists and the Appalachian families that had already settled here, as well as members of families that moved into the area in the 1930’s and 1940’s. These folks cared deeply for Christ Church and the Hughes Library and had kept them open and active, showing them to visitors still interested in the Rugby story. We owe these dedicated families much gratitude for persevering during the hard times of the early to mid 1900’s and keeping Rugby’s story alive. They include members of the Walton, Kellogg, Brooks, Wichmann and the Oscar Martin and Irving Martin families as well as others.
By the 1960’s many of the Victorian buildings were in sad disrepair. A few had burned and a few razed. Brian Stagg, a teenager in a village neighboring Rugby, came upon this amazing town full of incredible houses but few people. Fascinated, he made it his passion to see the village restored. To fund his passion, he began the Rugby Restoration Society and began lobbying to get the site listed on the Register of National Historic Places.
When the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers developed the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Rugby supporters instantly began working with them on a master plan to make Rugby a southern gateway into the park. Today, Historic Rugby’s Board still relies on this award-winning master plan to guide their developments.
Brian got the village and many of its historic buildings placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Rugby Colony Historic District in 1972. Unfortunately, Brian Stagg died soon thereafter and left Rugby without its champion.
In 1978, Stagg’s sister, Barbara, took on her brother’s dream and became the Executive Director of the Rugby Restoration Society. In 1982, the name was changed to Historic Rugby. Ms. Stagg labored for 32 years during which she tapped a government grant to purchase Uffington House, which once belonged to Sir Thomas’s mother. She and her husband John Gilliat spearheaded bringing the housing development Beacon Hill to fruition and raising Rugby to national attention.
After Ms. Stagg retired, the Board of Directors developed a strategic plan which helped them modernize and streamline the organization. Substantial restoration work to fix the deteriorating historic buildings was accomplished during this period thanks to generous donors who provided funds to the Historic Building Fund and to Steve Logan, who oversaw most of the restoration projects. Volunteers were and are pivotal to the success of the organization as they helped in all aspects of the organization including creating new interpretive programming and special events.
Today, a visitor to this quaint and special place will find many of the original Victorian houses standing and in excellent repair. Rugby opens itself for many events during each year, including Christmas at Rugby when the Harrow Road Café serves a traditional dinner and the town is decorated like something out of a Dickens novel.
The village’s website can be found here: http://www.historicrugby.org/