by Tim Miller
“Everybody loves a story.” —William Zinsser in “Writing To Learn”
Gather around friends and let me tell you a tale, the tale of historic Rugby, TN. It all starts with an Englishman named Thomas Hughes born in 1822 somewhere in England that ends in -shire. Thomas, known in this story hencewith as The Tomster, goes to this prominent, progressive school called the Rugby School, in Rugby—somewhere different in England that also ends in -shire.
Then in 1857 the Tomster writes this book about his experience called Tom Brown’s School Days which becomes something of a classic, ushers in an entire British school genre, becomes a big textbook in Japan, and even inspires the Harry Potter series, if you can believe it. The book, in a nutshell, “espouses the ideals of Christian socialism.” It’s all about what the Tomster feels is the ideal way to develop boys into men that will make for a good society for all— a real page-turner.
A big influence on the Tomster was his headmaster at Rugby, one Dr. Thomas Arnold. This guy, henceforth known as Dr. T-Bone, was a religious zealot that based his educational system on Classical languages. One interesting thing about Dr. T-Bone is that he pulled the plug on physical science and wrote, basically, that he would rather his son think that the sun goes round the Earth and that the stars are a bunch of spangles as long as he is straight on Christian moral and political philosophy. Dr. T-Bone had three primary objectives, in this presumably very rigid order: 1) cure of the soul 2) moral development and 3) intellectual development. It’s fair to say that 3) is probably something of a distant third.
So Dr. T-Bone had this big influence on education all over England, resulting in a bunch of schools adopting his structure and ideals. He may have had a lot to do with sport, like cricket, becoming a big part of schools, but this part is a tad ambiguous.
Anyway, the Tomster is clearly a big fan of Dr. T-Bone and really buys into his whole philosophy regarding Christian values and morals, and latches on to this idea of cooperative ownership of community businesses.
As the 1860’s get underway, the Tomster is a world famous author and English gentleman and has a bunch of author writer friends. One of which is this poet James Russell Lowell, henceforwithal known as Lowball. Lowball is a Harvard grad, a Romantic poet, and part of a group of New England Poets called the Fireside Poets. These bards earned this name, presumably, because you can read their poems to your family right at the—you guessed it—fireside. (This group managed to set itself apart from the other poetry and groups of poets of the era: the higher-quality and longer-lasting, but ultimately more costly poetry of the Beeswaxcandleside Poets; the cheaper, quicker, and unpleasant smelling Animalfatcandleside Poets—often read near mirrors to double their weak and loose meanings; the portable, racy, and erotic bedroom-reading specialists known as The Chamberstickside Poets; and the bourgeois, snooty, and ornate poems of the Candelabraside Poets.)
So Lowball is kind of a big deal. Beyond abolitionist poetry, he earns a law degree from Harvard, becomes a critic, an editor, and even a diplomat to Spain. Lowball writes a lot of satire of critics, including something called The Biglow Papers, which depicted the Yankee dialect and maybe was the first time that a writer actually wrote like people talked, which influenced Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. So yeah, kind of a big deal.
The Tomster goes to Boston in 1870 to visit Lowball and they start talking. The Tomster tells Lowball about this system in England called primogeniture. Lowball says, “primo-what?” And the Tomster says “Exactly.” So they have a good laugh but then the Tomster gets going in earnest about primo-what, which he explains is this tradition of the oldest son inheriting everything, and the second, third and so on getting nada, zilch, squat, diddly or however you say nothing in 1870’s slang. These second and third sons, the Tomster goes on to explain, end up jobless and idle and sort of like a blight on society— the exact opposite of what Dr. T-Bone envisioned for young men. Their very souls are in trouble, the Tomster says.
So long before Joseph Heller came along, the Tomster likely struggled for the right words to explain the catch 22 situation: the second and third sons are too proud to do the low-paying but honest jobs that are available, and their simply aren’t enough of the bourgeois, high-paying jobs that aren’t beneath them, in their own estimation. And meanwhile the first son gets everything and lives high and mighty over it all, for a while anyway. The economy, the Tomster confides, isn’t helping either. In fact, it’s as much a source of the problem as is the primo-what. It’s just a mess, the Tomster says to Lowball over some chowda.
Well, Lowball asks the Tomster if he has heard of the Boston-based Board of Aid to Land Ownership, which helps unemployed urban craftsman relocate to rural areas. No, the Tomster confesses, he has not heard of this program, but immediately you can imagine his Dr. T-Bone inspired gears get a-grinding.
So the Tomster goes back to England and writes this in response to criticism that Tom Brown’s School Days is too preachy:
“Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn’t do so myself.”
— Thomas Hughes, Preface to the sixth edition
(It should be noted that the Tomster wrote a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, in 1861 that basically flopped.)
Then in 1878 the Board of Aid President Franklin Webster Smith, hencewithforthcoming known as Smitty, travels to the Cumberland Plateau with an agent from the Cincinnati Southern Railway Co., Cyrus Clarke, a.k.a Clarkels. They are impressed with its “virgin forests, clear air, and scenic gorges.”
So Smitty goes back to Boston, but the conditions there are better: a lot of the urban craftsman don’t need relocating. So Smitty calls Lowball who calls the Tomster and voila the Tomster buys the land the Board of Aid offers near the Cumberland Plateau and calls it Rugby, fittingly, after his sentimental and halcyon school days.
Here’s where it gets all rubber-meets-the-road social science experiment. The Tomster starts recruiting these primo-what drunk degenerate second and third sons to come to this pristine Tennessee forest. Smitty lays out the town, choosing an area that looks like a resort even though it’s seven miles from the nearest railroad stop.
The first wave of settlers come out to Rugby around the late 1870’s; they start erecting structures like the three-story Tabard Inn which is straight out of a Capote or F.Scott Fitzgerald novel: very aristocratic and ghostly with lawns for croquet and tennis— right in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness.
They have a grand opening of the town in October of 1880 and the Tomster himself comes all the way from England. (It’s interesting to speculate here exactly how long it took this wave of immigrants and the Tomster to travel, but I would estimate it was at least two weeks and maybe as long as a month. From what I can tell, it seems like with a steel ship and steam engine they were able to cross the Atlantic in something like seven days by the 1880’s. And the railways were getting faster, too, but it still maybe took a week to get all the way out to the wilderness in between Nashville and Knoxville, even if you traveled, as I assume the Tomster did, first class.)
So the Tomster arrives and lays out his plans for an anti-materialistic, utopian Rugby in what must have been, for lack of a better term, a doozy of a speech.
I like to imagine him getting up to speak on a fresh October morn, resplendent with the beauty of changing leaves, crisp air, mild, pleasant breezes, and the overall magic autumnal wonder that dazzles with golden warmth. When I close my eyes, I can picture it:
The Tomster steps up in the bright sunshine and impossibly bright blue sky and tells the settlers that everyone will have to pay $5, like a tax, to be part of the public commissary, “thus ensuring public ownership.” He then goes on (and on) about guaranteed personal liberty and some real savory Dr. T-Bonian moralistic and political nuggets. A real sort of rah-rah, pep-rally, together-we-stand, divided-we-fall, all-for-one kind of speech, loaded like a baked potato with lots of Christian and moral preachy stuff, which he had at least a month to revise and tinker with on the trip that he makes without his wife or any of his nine children. (His wife basically wanted NOTHING, like zip, to do with Rugby.) He tells the mostly secular, alcoholic immigrants about the Episcopal Church and stresses that the church they will be too hungover to attend can be used for any denomination.
I can picture the settlers, too. A crowd of second and third sons basically on something akin to a vacation in a resort-like pristine wilderness, nodding politely through it all. I see them smiling and winking right through the parts about self-betterment, the Christian servant and productive gentleman of society, the arts and sports and library, except at the end of the speech, which hits them like a frying pan, when the Tomster says, very clearly and in no way mincing words, “No. Booze.”
I reckon he lost them then and there. Superficially he probably lost them pretty early on with his preaching, but they were willing to grin and bear it for form’s sake because they could go back to sipping moonshine at the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole once this author guy finally shuts his trap, but at this last moralistic jab, he surely lost them FOR GOOD.
So this English Victorian village social experiment is now growing right in the heart of post Civil War wilderness Dixie. All these newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Harper’s are following it, probably somewhat skeptically. In London, too, there is lots of interest and coverage from the media. After all the Tomster is not just a famous author but also a lawyer, a member of Parliament, and a judge.
And so how does it do? What happens? At first, thanks to the beauty and resort-like surroundings, pretty well.
“By 1884, the colony boasted over 400 residents (including the Tomster’s mom), 65 frame public buildings and houses, a tennis team, a social club, and a literary and dramatic society. In 1885, Rugby established a university, Arnold School, named for Rugby School headmaster Thomas Arnold.”
Another interesting thing about the Tomster is that he establishes this library that still stands today. They built it in 1882 and arranged for some Boston bookseller, maybe someone Lowball knew or something, to provide the books— some 7,000. (When you visit the library, you are not allowed to touch the books, some of them dating back to the 17th century, so it has this sad, frozen-in-time quality, interesting and worth preserving but also tragic in the sense that the words and knowledge are forever trapped inside and doomed to the darkness of their own closed covers. Not a place that any living author would aspire to be. Sort of like in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Will tells Sean about his friends Shakespeare and Nietche, Sean responds, “Well that’s great. They’re all dead.” I imagine him saying the same thing visiting this stuffy old dusty one room library where they don’t even open the windows. “That’s great, Rugby. But these books are all dead.”)
Early on, the Tomster’s experiment is going well. The degenerate English guys have escaped a Dickensian industrial 1880’s urban jobless catch 22 misery for these rugged woods and serene streams and beautiful mountains. They’re stoked.
And then life happens. First, an “epidemic” of typhoid hits the town, claiming seven people including the editor of Rugby’s newspaper, the Rugbeian. Though only seven people die, the press and the media are the real killer as the whole reason to visit Rugby was it’s resort-like qualities and who exactly wants to visit a place with typhoid in the headlines?
The Tabard Inn has to close and there’s no one but ghosts of upper class tourists playing croquet on the overgrown grasses. So tourism takes a hit, but also the Tomster over across the pond isn’t exactly scrutinizing the details of his experiment.
Mainly, the Appalachian natives didn’t trust this Ohio railway agent Clarkels, not a surprise there, with all his options on land. So a bunch of these Appalachian folks, probably safe to say not big readers (despite the library), refuse to sell or file lawsuits and it all drags on and basically becomes one big headache for the regular old Winston Berkshire the Third, just trying to buy a little land and maybe have a cabin of his own to pass out in.
Besides the whole Clarkels land ownership debacle, there’s also a very real and T-Bone scorned physical science fact of the poor soil that Smitty chose to build Rugby on, because of it’s resort-like nature that no one will visit because of the typhoid headlines and the Rugbeian can’t even defend their own tourism because the editor himself succumbed.
But the real downfall, the nail in the coffin if you will, is that these English gent/colonists are not what you would call workers. They are in fact the opposite: lazy drinkers. And the Tomster, visiting once for about a month, probably in summer and staying in the Kingstone Lisle or the Newbury House, nice digs indeed, isn’t exactly motivating them with his speeches that included strict adherence to Christian morals and basically sober living.
So people starve and the town struggles and basically declines. In 1884 the Tabard Inn, veering into Faulkner short story territory, burns to the ground. In 1887 the Tomster’s mom dies and is buried in Rugby. The Rugbeian ceases publication. After his mom passes, the Tomster never returns to Rugby. (One can probably infer here that Tomster’s mom and his wife were not very close. In fact, it’s interesting to speculate why the Tomster’s mom chose to move to Rugby at the age of 83, away from all of her grandchildren?) By the end of 1887, all of the original colonists were gone.
Five years later one of the Tomster’s lawyers and partners named Sir Henry, hencewith known as Sir Hank comes and reorganizes the Board of Aid and tries to harvest the areas natural resources, essentially the antithesis of the anti-materialistic vision of the Tomster, but Sir Hank doesn’t fare much better with the lack of a workforce with any sort of appetite for actual work.
The entire story of Rugby would be lost along with the ashes of the Tabard Inn if it wasn’t for the son of Robert Walton, forthhencewith known as Little Bobby. His dad, Robert Walton (aka Big Bob) was the Cincinnati engineer that the Tomster and his Brit lawyer buddies put in charge of the colony in 1882, right when it started going a little south after the media-labeled epidemic of seven typhoid deaths. Big Bob does his darndest, like trying to open a tomato cannery operation, which fails once again because of the poor soil/work ethic of the colonists.
So Little Bobby basically is a child of the dying town. Once he grows up he makes it his life mission to preserve its history. He protects and maintains some of the buildings, like the library and the church and the Newbury house until the 1940’s, when the timber companies start to really devour the virgin forests in earnest and the federal government steps in to help preserve a slice of history.
In the 1960’s they form the non-profit group Historic Rugby so that, just as my dad, sister, uncle and I did one Sunday, you too can take a drive out to the country and, as the website claims, find “both exciting AND relaxing things to do!”
The Video. Begin your visit with the short twenty-two minute national award winning historical video The Power of A Dream (free of charge!) in the “comfortable” Johnson Theatre. (The name of the award is not clear.)
The Tour. For $7 ($6 for seniors over sixty, students k-12 $4, and preschoolers free) each, you can take the very same tour we did that leads through the Thomas Hughes Free Public Library (over 7,000 untouchable volumes), the 1884 Kingston Lisle Founder’s Home (including an old stove, furniture, and a piano that you can sit down and play), the one room schoolhouse (built in 1906 after a fire destroyed the original building), and the 1887 Christ Church Episcopal (with its original furnishings, light fixtures, and rosewood organ), which still has services on Sundays.
Free to Roam. After the church, if you spent any time at all sitting in the pews, you’ll want to stretch your legs and ease that pain in your lower back by heading down to the Rugby Printing Press. With it’s original equipment and machinery, a volunteer will print your name on a bookmark that readers and possessive children under eleven will really relish. Then, like us, why not head over and grab some Shepard’s Pie at the Harrow Road Café (built in 1980)? It’s a bit heavy, so after you’ll want to walk down to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole, where so many emigrants avoided back-breaking manual labor. You’ll walk right past a cluster of trees and bushes where the Tabard Inn once stood. After wading in the cool waters of the Gentlemen’s Swimming Pool (be sure to check for ticks, my dad found two after visiting), you can head to the old cemetery and, unlike her inconsiderate, ungrateful daughter-in-law, you can pay your respects to the Tomster’s mom, who was buried in 1887.
Much of the area surrounding Rugby, which originally attracted Clarkels and Smitty and the Tomster himself, is now State Forest, National Park, and Recreation Areas. If you still have the energy, you can take a hike and contemplate the buildings and croquet ghosts and scattered hardy residents that have preserved a life that lives, on and on, through the years, like the books, untouched by time or tourist. If you can whistle, I recommend Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.
Because life goes on, except in Rugby.
Tim Miller would like to be considered an emerging writer, but alas, he is afraid of swamps. His writing has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Aethlon: Journal of Sports Literature, and You & Me Medical Magazine. He lives in San Marcos, CA with his wife and three daughters. To the dismay of plumbers everywhere, he shares his leaky thoughts at https://thefaucetblog.com/