Historic Rugby, Tennessee will charm and relax you.
1880. Thomas Hughes, British utopian reformer and author of the classic “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” arrives in a remote area on the Cumberland Plateau, fired up with a new scheme. He would found a “new centre of human life” in the tiny hamlet, rechristen it “Rugby” after his old school, and lure second and third sons of noble English families, eager to make their own lives outside of the rigid primogeniture system.
Oh, those Utopians! During the 19th century, they included Americans Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), John Humphrey Noyes (founder of the Oneida silverware company) and Nathaniel Hawthorne. How idealistic, adorable and completely impractical they all were! But in the case of Rugby, Hughes and his converts, both English and American, did manage to create an entire town, complete with church and library, which struggled on (minus the Utopia) until the 1950s, when Rugby became a near-ghost town. Even boarding house Newbury House stood empty and decaying.
Enter another idealist. In 1966, very young Brian Stagg, who had grown up nearby, mustered a group of volunteers determined to rescue and restore the village. Through the efforts of Stagg, his family and this group, by 1972, “the Rugby Colony Historic District” had been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. And the founding and popularity of nearby Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area bolstered tourism. Rugby was saved, and remains a perfect weekend getaway for those who love both history and the outdoors.
There are a number of accommodations options in Rugby, but likely the most fun is the actual Newbury House itself, now restored and furnished with period antiques. Owned and operated by Historic Rugby, it’s a B&B, but breakfast is served down the road at the delightful Harrow Road Café (the only place in town to eat). Be aware there is no onsite host at Newbury House—on arrival in Rugby, check in at the Visitor Centre and get the keys that allow you access to the house and your room. Said to be haunted, peaceful Newbury House, with no in-room TVs but plenty of books, is a step back into the past—a charming one.
While at the Visitor Centre, take the time to watch the extremely well made short film on the village’s history, and take the guided tour of some of the restored buildings. You’ll see Kingston Lisle, Thomas Hughes’ own house, the exquisite Christ Church Episcopal (still in use), the schoolhouse, and, a must for bibliophiles, the Thomas Hughes Library, almost unchanged since 1882 and housing more than 7,000 of the original volumes. (Be sure and look for the tiny red leather sleeve housing a miniature “Complete Works of Shakespeare.”
The Rugby Commissary is a reconstruction of the original town co-op, and sells materials on Rugby, as well as arts and crafts from the area, some unique. Open on occasion is the Rugby Printing Works, which still operates and is furnished as it would have been in the 1880s.
A wonderful afternoon at Rugby can be spent on a short wander through the Laurel Dale Cemetery, where many of the original colonists are buried, and then a hike on the two-mile Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole/Meeting of the Waters trail, which starts from the cemetery. Before the loop concludes, you’ll see the intersection of the Clear Fork River with White Oak Creek—and take a break to gaze at the swimming hole where all those second and third sons frolicked before hightailing it back to England.
For those who want more outdoor challenges, making Rugby your headquarters for forays into the Big South Fork, which offers hiking, mountain biking and much more, is ideal.
As you might imagine, evenings in the village are quiet, but treat yourself to a good homestyle meal (accompanied by a small-but-nice choice of beers and wines) at the Harrow Road Café, where, if you’re there on a Friday night, you may get drawn into a group sing-along by the bluegrass players.
During the holidays, special events take place. On Nov. 28, Rugby hosts the Thanksgiving Marketplace and the annual British Cream Tea at Newbury House. (Tea requires reservations). And for a real Victorian Christmas treat, Dec. 6 and 13 are “Christmas in Rugby” nights, with caroling, visits from Father Christmas, and village festivities. The Café will offer a special Holiday Dinner on those nights.
Quilters, threads up: Apr. 10-11, 2015 will mark “Rugby Quilts: Wave the Red, White & Blue.” For more info, email Debbie at email@example.com
Travelers’ Note: As off-the-beaten-path is Rugby is, mapping devices haven’t caught up with it yet, and have been known to land the unwary in the middle of a field. Locals recommend using the actual address: Historic Rugby, P.O. Box 8, Rugby TN 37733, to look up directions. It’s a gorgeous drive, but on winding mountain roads. Be prepared to take your time—just as the original colonists did. For more info and to book accommodations, visit historicrugby.org or call (423) 628-2441.