I was out for a scenic drive through Tennessee one morning with no real destination in mind, and I was getting hungry. A quick search on Yelp pointed me toward the Harrow Road Cafe with great reviews and appetizing photos of the food. It was during lunch my waitress asked, “Are you going to tour the historic town when you’re done?”
Historic Rugby, Tennessee began as a utopian dream in 1880. Founded by British author Thomas Hughes, the Rugby Colony was a dream for a better civilization in the New World built around a thriving, self-sustaining community. But by 1900 the dream had faded and the town nearly abandoned. In 1966 Historic Rugby, Inc. was founded with the purpose of restoring and maintaining the beautiful buildings of the once-thriving community. Today it is one of the best kept secret destinations in Tennessee just a few hours from Knoxville.
There really isn’t much to the town. I don’t say this in a negative or discouraging way, but rather just to point out if you don’t know what you are looking for when you visit Rugby you could very well see nothing at all. The two lane road off Highway 52 is only a few miles long through a town with a mixture of modern brick homes sitting beside historic buildings. There are no sidewalks or light poles you would normally find in a small town; instead the only thing you’ll find along the road are rustic fences, beautiful shrubbery, and thin patches of grass.
Begin the visit at the Historic Rugby Visitor Centre and Theatre in the heart of the town. A small museum with exhibits and artifacts explains the town’s history and purpose. Here you can buy tickets for a guided tour around the town ($7 for Adults, $6 for Seniors age 60 or above, $4 for Children K-12, and Free for Children not yet in school). The guided tour takes visitors next door to the Hughes Free Public Library, down the street to the Kingstone Lisle House, across the street to the Christ Church Episcopal, and ends at the Rugby Schoolhouse.
The tour ventures inside each of the buildings. The mustiness in the air combined with ancient kitchen utensils and dusty books tells you the age of the buildings. Electricity and running water are the only amenities added to the buildings since their construction over a hundred years ago. The tour guide tells stories of the residents, history of the town, and points out interesting aspects of each building.
It’s a short tour, both in time and distance walked, but still interesting to see. This was designed as a utopia and hundreds of people flocked here near the end of the 19th century. A series of unfortunate events from a deadly plague to horrid winters brought the town to it’s end, but the preservation organization today has done a wonderful job of maintaining some of the buildings. It’s not often structures with such intricate and beautiful architecture can be seen in a remote country setting.
It was an interesting stop on a day I expected nothing but winding country roads. The food at the Harrow Road Cafe was delicious. I took a walk through the Commissary looking for local arts and crafts. I put this on my map as a place to visit again. I had come to the area for camping at the Big South Fork Scenic River and Recreation Area, but now the fascinating tour in the historic town of Rugby will forever be a part of my outdoor adventures.