Deep in the heart of the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, a hidden village harkens back to the corseted and tricorn era of old England. How a preserved Victorian village came to be in the hollows and hills of Appalachia is just as unique as the fact that it still exists more than 100 years after it was founded. In fact, Historic Rugby remains one of the nation's strangest and most fascinating secrets.
The village of Rugby today seems like a place out of time. The gabled homes, the high-spired church steeple, and the gentle paths that surround this village look much like they did when dreamers from England “crossed the pond” to create a life and community in the New World.
Founded in 1880 by British author and gentry Thomas Hughes, this living village was meant to be a Victorian utopia tucked away for the “second sons” deep in the heart of Appalachia. Hughes was the author of the popular children’s book Tom Brown’s School Days, and he wanted a place where second sons -- those born in the gentry but doomed to inherit nothing -- could live without class distinctions.
Setting up a little piece of high-class British culture in the wild heart of Tennessee was an optimistic pipe dream of sorts, but amazingly, Hughes made it work. For over a decade, his dream was a reality.
Today, visitors still make their way to Rugby -- sometimes quite by accident, as I did while exploring Tennessee as a guest of The Tennessee Department of Tourism.
This slice of history wasn’t on my itinerary, but when Rhonda Moody of Highland Manor Winery in Jamestown told me about the little English village, I knew I had to explore it on my own.
History Of Rugby
The Rugby colony was a highly celebrated endeavor when it opened in 1880 in East Tennessee’s rugged Cumberland Plateau. The dream of British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes, Rugby was intended to be a class-free village that was opened to everyone. In addition to being a cultured society, Rugby was also designed to be an agricultural cooperative.
Hundreds immigrated to Rugby from the British Isles and hundreds more came from various parts of America. In the early years, roughly 60 homes and community buildings were built in the Victorian style, a vastly different architecture than the surrounding, poverty-stricken communities. As part of the utopian dream, the residents were encouraged to live a rich recreational and social life in Rugby.
In fact, the Men’s Swimming Hole was one of the top recreational activities for the men of Rugby, and it’s still open to the public today. Other recreations included archery, drama, baseball, and equestrian clubs.
The lavish Tabard Inn was the colony’s social center, and even back then, the town attracted tourists from across the region. For a short time, Rugby became the largest town in the Cumberland Plateau, but the dream began to crumble as all dreams do.
Severe winters and a drought-stricken summer caused hardship in the budding community, but a typhoid epidemic was a deadly blow to the town, killing two guests and five colonists. In 1884, the Tabard Inn caught fire, and slowly, many immigrants and gentry who called Rugby home realized they were unsuited for the harsh manual labor required to make the dream last.
Although Rugby’s population and popularity diminished dramatically toward the end of the 1800s, it was never fully abandoned. From the 1900s to the 1950s, people still lived in Rugby, and some descendants of the original colony lovingly cared for the buildings and homes in the community.
In the 1960s, a 16-year-old boy named Brian Stagg did what many only dreamed of. He led the restoration and preservation of the entire village with the help of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Those efforts paid off, and in 1972, the Rugby Colony Historic District was listed on the Register of Historic Places.
Restoration And Care
Under the leadership of Stagg, who served as the Rugby Restoration Association director for 10 years, the town started coming back to life. Restoration work began on the founder’s home, the church, and the library, and the Rugby Archives were created to preserve the historic photographs, memoirs, letters, and records of the early settlement.
Today, Rugby is a rarity. The original town plan and its surrounding wilderness remain much as they did in 1880, and new residents and tourism have breathed life into the dream community.
Today, 12 original buildings have been restored to their historic origins, and the 805-acre Rugby State Natural Areas and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area bring more and more visitors through Rugby.
New residents who move into Rugby build historically compatible homes based on the original 1880 town plan, and more and more buildings are being restored, including the 1881 Uffington House, where Thomas Hughes’ niece and elderly mother once lived.
Pro Tip: The Rugby Visitor’s Centre offers a fantastic free documentary called The Power of a Dream that should not be missed. The short movie delves deep into the history of Rugby and its people, quotes diary entries of those who lived here, and provides information and commentary on the lifespan of the village from its founding up to its current community.
How To Visit Rugby
Getting to Rugby isn’t difficult, but you can pass by it without ever seeing the turn-off. From Knoxville, travel on I-75 North to Exit 141 for Huntsville/Oneida, and then take Highway 63 to a left on Highway 27.
Start your tour of Rugby at the Rugby Visitor’s Center, which is open Thursdays through Sundays. After learning about the history of the town with the film The Power of a Dream, sign up for a guided walking tour of some of the buildings and exhibits in Historic Rugby. The one-block walking tour will bring you to the 1882 Thomas Hughes Free Public Library, the founder’s home, 1887 Christ Church Episcopal, and the 1907 Schoolhouse with exhibits featuring Rugby images through the years.
Be sure to pick up a detailed map of Rugby, which is free at the Visitor Centre. The map includes all trails leading from Rugby into The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, plus trails through the Rugby State Natural Area.
You can even stay overnight at Rugby in one of three historic lodgings: the Pioneer Cottage, the Newbury House, and the Percy Cottage.
In addition, Rugby hosts several events throughout the year, including guided hikes, art events, special festivals, and classes.
The Harrow Road Cafe in Rugby was destroyed by fire in September 2020, so it’s closed for repair and renovation. However, just up the road from Rugby is the R.M. Brooks Store, which offers up a pleasing lunch and takeout every day but Sunday. It’s also full of Americana memorabilia, local crafts, historical items, and locally created merchandise. For more Tennessee inspiration, consider: