Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Christ Episcopal Church, Rugby TN
While searching for serendipity on the Cumberland Plateau, we made a trek to Rugby, Tennessee, a town on the northern part of the Plateau lying within the Clear Fork and White Oak Rivers.  This unincorporated village was once the utopian dream of Franklin W. Smith who planned to relocate unemployed factory workers from the industrial cities of the Northeast to the woods and mountain air of Tennessee. Smith recruited a Brit to join him in his dream named Thomas Hughes, an English social reformer and author known for his classic, Tom Brown's Schooldays.  Smith abandoned his dream, but Hughes actively pursued the idea of building a Utopian paradise in northern Tennessee. His intention was to build a class-free, agrarian community in which citizens engaged in cooperative enterprises, and I might add, governed by strict temperance. Established in 1880, Rugby, for a brief time, was known as an Eden on the Cumberland Plateau peopled with British emigrants and those of Scots-Irish or Welsh descent, along with a few Germans and African Americans.

The utopian community suffered from severe winters and droughts in the summer, followed by a typhoid epidemic that decimated the population. The demise of the community was also complicated by the fact that most of the inhabitants were gentrymen unsuited to manual labor. Immigration to Rugby ceased, and by the 1920's, the total population had declined to 125 people of largely Appalachian descent. However, the town never became a ghost town, and by the 1960's, a young man from Deer Lodge, Tennessee named Brian Stagg had formed the Rugby Restoration Association, which later listed the town on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, twelve buildings have been restored or reconstructed according to historical standards. 

We ate lunch in the town's only restaurant, the Harrow CafĂ©, and I tasted a genuine Shepherd's Pie, the first I've sampled since I left Iran back in the 70's. Following lunch, we visited a print shop that still produces hand-lettered circulars and ads but doesn't publish the former weekly, The Rugbeian.

One of the most interesting buildings in the village is the Thomas Hughes Library, which boasts an original 7,000-volume collection that has remained intact within the structure since 1882, the oldest free public library existing in the US. today. It includes the original collection, furnishings, and early checkout records and is painted its original three shades of gray. Film that blocks ultraviolet rays has been applied to all the windows, and the building has no air-conditioning. Had this been a Louisiana collection, it would have long ago been destroyed by humidity and mold.

Old Victorian library at Rugby TN
Another building that attracted us was Christ Episcopal Church, built in 1887, with original hanging and wall oil lamps that have been electrified. Services are held at 11 a.m. each Sunday, and the original walnut alms basins are still used to collect offerings. Our tour guide told us that the little church has attracted many converts who have moved into a new subdivision called Beacon Hill where the newly-built homes must be architecturally compatible with Rugby's historic structures. 

The day after our visit to Rugby, we drove to Berea, Kentucky, known as the Folks Art Capitol of Kentucky and home of Berea College, the first interracial, co-ed school in the South. The town was named Berea after the city in the Book of Acts, and one of the town founders, Rev. John G. Fee, was an abolitionist who felt he was called to spread the gospel of love, which included the freeing of slaves. His mission was to promote equality for men and women of all races through learning, service, and labor. Today, eight percent of enrolled students from countries outside the U.S. attend Berea College, and a sizable percentage of the student population is Black. Berea was founded on the vision of an egalitarian society where all students could achieve their academic goals, and the college is also known for its "no tuition" tradition.

Dulcimer group practicing at Berea Tourism and
Welcome Center
When we visited the Berea Tourism and Welcome Center located in the old L&N Train Depot, we found serendipity in the Madison Dulcimer Group, one of whom was a Haik related to Ted Haik of New Iberia, Louisiana.   The group, composed of four dulcimers and one ukulele, discovered we lived in Louisiana part of the year, and promptly set up the sheet music to "A Cajun Waltz" and played it for us, then performed "Amazing Grace" as an encore. 

The ceramics, woven goods, pewter, jewelry, and woodcraft on sale in Old Town Artisan Village, Kentucky Artisan Center, and College Square in Berea offer a dizzying array of folk crafts where the creation of these crafts are also demonstrated within many of the shops. We weren't surprised to learn that Berea has received numerous awards from national and international publications, including being named one of "America' Best Small Towns" for several years. We regretted that we weren't able to stick around to hear some of the music performed by the Black Music Ensemble from Berea College, the Bluegrass Ensemble, Wind and Jazz Ensembles, and the "Jammin on the Porch" summer concert on Thursday evening.

1 comment:

LDH said...

Interesting trip to Rugby and Berea, Ky. We often drive the back roads of Texas and south Louisiana stopping often, for almost any reason, sometimes turning a 2 hour drive on old Hwy 90 into a day long trek. All of that, of course, with the hope of a good picture or two for the effort.

You mentioned Brea as an arts and crafts destination, no doubt partly due to the life and career of Rude Osolnik. He was a resident and teacher at the college, and had a worldwide reputation as an outstanding craft person. He is one of the people primarily responsible for the resurgence in the art of woodturning over the last 40 or so years. If other readers are interested, a web site devoted to his work is found at

Enjoy your blog!