British author Thomas Hughes observed that a lot the “second sons” – the next oldest boys in aristocratic families during the Victorian era – didn’t have a lot of opportunities available in their native England.
That’s because the first-borns got all the privileges and wealth. So in 1880, Hughes established an experimental community, where these hard-luck Englishmen could have a chance to be successful and not be constrained by their birth order, class or society. The guiding ideas of cooperation and equality, originating from Hughes’ own book, Tom Brown’s School Days, brought this new village in the eastern Tennessee foothills into existence. He named the it after his alma matter, Rugby School.
Unfortunately, problems plagued the community almost from the start. The gentrified men weren’t used to the hard labor of farming, and the Cumberland Plateau land was not even suited for growing crops. A typhoid epidemic affected much of the population. Finally, disputes about land ownership were common over the next seven years.
But even with most of the original settlers moving away or passing, Rugby maintained a few residents over the next century. Those who especially loved its well-constructed homes and buildings continued to restore them so they appeared nearly new, and locals organized tours and events to keep visitors coming.
This unexpected bit of Victorian England is just about an hour’s drive northwest of Whitestone Inn. While the remaining community might be small, it’s well worth your time and effort to visit Rugby and immerse yourself in this unique place.
Take a historic tour
The best way to appreciate Rugby is to embark on a guided tour. Starting at the village’s Visitor Centre & Theatre, you’ll first see the fascinating short film, “The Power of a Dream.” Then follow an informative guide who will take you to Rugby’s points of interest, including a mural created at the time of its founding, the Free Public Library, Hughes’ home Kingstone Lisle, the Christ Church Episcopal and its schoolhouse.
Savor a local meal
One of the oldest continually operating restaurants in the area, the Harrow Road Café has served up English and American dishes since 1882. Closing for a much-needed renovation in 2015 and asking for the community’s input, they opened up this past spring with a new chef, Amy Hubbard, who has included more locally-sourced creations. The restaurant aims to be Rugby’s central spot for visitors and residents alike.
Go shopping for cool stuff
You’ll find four iconoclastic stores on Rugby’s streets. The largest and most well-known is the Commissary and Museum Store, a fun mix of British merchandise and Appalachian handicrafts. Two local artists have two stores, Spirit of Red Hill and Please Be Seated, which naturally feature their works and those of other local artisans. Finally, Missions Matter sells crafts from underdeveloped countries, and proceeds go to those communities where the owner has served as a missionary.
Get something hot off the presses
The Historic Rugby Printing Works, which first started as the newspaper printing operation and now creates business documents, greeting cards, menus, books and other paper-related products, is free to the public. Here you will see how the art and craft of printing worked in the village’s early days and how after a 60-year-long hiatus, this business came roaring back to life. You’ll also get your own souvenir when you visit.
Enjoy a festival
Rugby brings people to its compact area with a continuous offering of celebrations. These include ones that are directly taken from its English heritage (such as the British car show, tea table setting contest and a tea for Michaelmas), while others are holiday-related. Please check out this page for a complete list.
Explore the outdoors
No matter what your interests are, you’ll find Historic Rugby a fascinating destination.
All Images Courtesy of Historic Rugby.