Rugby Colony, Morgan and Scott County Tennessee

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Rugby is a community located in Morgan and Scott counties Tennessee along state route 52.   The colony was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 26, 1972.

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In 1870,  English author Thomas Hughes traveled to America to meet his friend, the poet James Russell Lowell, and learned of the Boston-based Board of Aid to Land Ownership, which specialized in helping unemployed urban craftsmen relocate to rural areas.  Hughes indicated that such an operation might also be beneficial to young, unemployed English gentry.

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In 1878, Board of Aid president Franklin Webster Smith and an agent with the new Cincinnati Southern Railway, Cyrus Clarke, were travelling on the railroad’s new tracks along the Cumberland Plateau when they identified the future site of Rugby, and were impressed with its virgin forests, clear air, and scenic gorges. Clarke secured options on hundreds of thousands of acres of Plateau land.  Knoxville attorney Oliver Perry Temple, who became the colony’s legal and agricultural adviser, began the complicated process of securing land titles.

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Smith returned to Boston to recruit families to move to the newly acquired land on the Plateau, but economic conditions in the northeast had improved, and few families were interested in relocating.

Christ Church Episcopal

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Christ Church Episcopal — In operation since the 1880s

Smith then notified Hughes of the Board’s new land acquisitions, and Hughes expressed interest in establishing a colony. Hughes formed a partnership with British lawyers Sir Henry Kimber and John Boyle, and bought the Board of Aid.

Thomas Hughes was onhand for the colony’s “opening” on October 5, 1880, and gave a speech that laid out his plans for Rugby. All colonists would be required to invest $5 in the commissary, thus ensuring public ownership. Personal freedoms were guaranteed, although the sale of alcohol was banned. The colony would build an Episcopal church, but the building could be used by any denomination.  On opening day, Tennessee’s Episcopal bishop, the Right Reverend Charles Quintard, chartered Christ Church and licensed colonist Joseph Blacklock as lay reader.

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Hughes Free Public Library — Opened in 1882
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The Library is basically unchanged since it first opened.

Throughout its early history, Rugby was beset with lawsuits over land titles. While Cyrus Clarke had obtained options on nearly 350,000 acres of land, many of the Plateau’s Appalachian natives grew suspicious of Clarke and refused to sell their property. This slowed the colony’s early development, and as the lawsuits dragged on, many colonists gave up and moved away. Furthermore, Smith, who had selected the townsite, had ignored the site’s poor soil in favor of its potential as a mountain resort. Rugby’s main resort hotel, the Tabard, was forced to close due to the typhoid outbreak in 1881, however, and burned down altogether in 1884, halting Rugby’s burgeoning tourist economy and damaging the Board of Aid’s credit.

Frustrated by the colony’s slow development, the Board of Aid’s London backers replaced colony director John Boyle with Irish-born Cincinnati city engineer Robert Walton in May 1882. Rugby attempted to establish a tomato canning operation in 1883, but after the cannery was constructed, colonists failed to grow enough tomatoes to keep it operational. Newspapers began to ridicule Rugby, with London’s Daily News accusing Hughes of creating a “pleasure picnic” rather than a functioning colony, and the New York Times claiming that Hughes was planning to abandon the colony altogether.

In 1887, the deaths of a number of prominent colonists— including Hughes’s mother, Margaret, and geologist Charles Wilson— led to the departure of most of Rugby’s original settlers. That year, Hughes made his last annual visit to the colony, and The Rugbeian ceased publication.  In 1892, Sir Henry Kimber reorganized the Board of Aid as the Rugby Tennessee Company, which focused on harvesting the region’s natural resources, all but abandoning the anti-materialistic ideals on which the colony was founded.  By 1900, the company had sold its Cumberland Plateau holdings

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Robert Walton’s son, William (1887–1958), maintained the Thomas Hughes Library, the Christ Church Episcopal, and Kingstone Lisle until the mid-20th century. During the same period, Uffington House was maintained by the family of C.C. Brooks. Conservation efforts at Rugby began in the 1940s when logging practices were decimating the surrounding virgin forests. The efforts were publicized by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and gained federal support with the aide of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, but the state of Tennessee rejected the logging companies’ offering price for the land, and the forest was cut right up to the community’s boundaries.

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In 1966, preservationists formed Historic Rugby, a non-profit group dedicated to restoring and maintaining the community’s surviving historic structures, which include the Christ Church Episcopal, the Thomas Hughes Library, the Rugby School, Kingstone Lisle, Uffington House, and Newbury House. The group has also reconstructed several buildings based on their original designs, including the Board of Aid office, the Rugby Commissary, and Sir Henry Kimber’s Percy Cottage. The Harrow Road Cafe, a restaurant built in the 1980s, was named for a restaurant that existed at Rugby in the 1880s, although its original design is unknown. The Rugby Printing Works, which originally stood at nearby Deer Lodge, was moved to Rugby in the 1970s. In recent years, Historic Rugby has opened up the community’s Beacon Hill area (originally planned to include residences and a park) to new home construction, with the condition that all new homes must be designed in accordance with the community’s Victorian aesthetic.

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The 1907 Schoolhouse contains pictorial exhibits that trace more than a century of Rugby’s history.

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This building was built on the same foundation as the original 2 1/2 story public building constructed by the Board of Aid to serve as school, church, and later as the meeting place for the local order of Masons. The first building burned in 1906.

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As there were still dozens of children attending school at Rugby, the Morgan County Board of Education had this building constructed with the typical one large room for teaching downstairs and a lunchroom upstairs. It served as Rugby’s all-grade school until 1951.

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This church is an example of Carpenter Gothic architecture, like all Rugby’s early buildings, was constructed of the virgin pine, walnut and poplar which covered the Plateau in the 1880s. The church contains all its early furnishings, including light fixtures and a rosewood organ. It has been used continuously for public worship since 1887.

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The Rugby Printing Works

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The building furthest to the right is the commissary.

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This is the colony founder Thomas Hughes’ house.  It is based on an ‘English Rural Style’ cottage drawn by the famous American landscape and architectural designer Andrew Jackson Downing.

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Percy Cottage is named after a son of Sir Henry Kimber, a British baronet who was one of the biggest railway owners in the Empire. Next to Hughes, Sir Henry was the largest investor in the Rugby settlement. This cottage is located on the site of the original, which stood here until probably the early 1930s.  This building was reconstructed in 1978.

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