Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 13, 2024

Historic Rugby Feels Homey!

Utopia is only a few hours away in the restored Victorian enclave known as Rugby.

Located near Big South Fork National Park, approximately 35 miles off I-75 and I-40 on State Highway 52 is Rugby, Tenn., a town set up in the early 1880s as a harmonious, class-free society based on agriculture and manufacturing.  My husband, two boys and in-laws recently visited and had a splendid adventure.

Rugby’s founder, Thomas Hughes, convinced hundreds of British families to create a cooperative community on the Cumberland Plateau, but a bitter cold winter followed by summer drought and typhoid fever sent many of the pioneers packing before the dream could be fully realized.

What’s There?

Lucky for us, settlers who stayed were into recycling – original furnishings, household items and buildings are still there.  Looking at a “fancy” Kalamazoo stove (it has a temperature gauge!) and “modern” conveniences like ice tongs and plum pudding molds helped us appreciate our microwave-ready lives.

Our tour guide, Betty Burton, drew in the younger crowd with interactive questions like, “If you lived here in the 1880s, what do you think your Mama would’ve used this [a rug beater] for?”  She points out dark rooms, difficult-to-refill oil lamps (no electricity) and fine china (no plastic or Styrofoam) to stir up imaginations.  Our kids enjoyed hearing about Tom the Pet Donkey who lived to age 30 addicted to children’s sweets – the animal would release animals from their pens and run through town braying!  Kids age 7 and older can participate in a Junior Colonist scavenger hunt and earn a certificate by finding items such as 200-year-old scratch marks courtesy of the librarian’s dog!

Thomas Hughes is most famous for his classic novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays.  It’s popularity inspired donations of more than 7,000 first-edition books to the free public library – remember, back then books were expensive and rare.  But before your little readers migrate to the lovingly dogeared children’s section, tell them to look but not touch.  Ask about the super spy-style device the librarian uses against fire.

Hughes’ 83-year-old mother was also an inspiration to the townsfolk.  The 1887 church is dedicated to her (as well as to the rector’s mother).  The original rosewood organ needs repair, but the rope-pulled bell and pews hewn from local heartwood still beckon all denominations to sit in on 11 a.m. Sunday services.

It’s fun wandering through old pictures in the schoolhouse, imagining the Total Abstinence Society having tea and billiards at the Tabard Inn or ink-stained print blocks stamping out the weekly paper.  Signs are still around town that read, “Smoking of the VILE weed of tobacco is forbidden.”  We reinforced that point to our kids!

Shopping and Dining

The commissary offers old-timey gifts like Victorian paper dolls, stained-glass angels, baby bonnets and locally-made wooden toys and dolls.  Find instruction books for gourd birdhouses, quilts, dainty needlework or spinning yarn.  Peruse local cookbooks or write on a schoolhouse chalk slate.  
There’s “Appalachian” and British food at the Harrow Road Café.  One order of the “best-ever fish and chips” stuffed my two growing boys. 

I wanted to try the Welsh rarebit but couldn’t resist bangers and mash served with spoon rolls and bubble-and-squeak.  Our server Louise informed us that moms hid veggies (cabbage) in mashed potatoes to fool picky eaters.  The cafe also serves salads ($2.50 – $8), soup and sandwich combos ($2 – $5), shepherd’s pie ($7), ice cream floats and sundaes ($3) and fresh-baked pie.  Dulcimer music, church-pews, oil lamps and a roaring fireplace set the mood.

It may be too cold for swimming, but you can walk off the hearty meal on a half-mile trail to the Gentleman’s swimming hole! 

Upcoming Seasonal Events

More than history entices visitors to Rugby.  There are frequent craft and outdoor workshops.  Hand-carve a Santa ornament with Master Carver Everett Elkins on Nov. 6 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. ($30, for beginner – intermediate skill levels).  Stock up on holiday gifts from local artisans during the Nov. 26 Thanksgiving Marketplace; see craftsperson demos and get “crumpet-y” at the Newbury House Victorian Cream Tea – a rare treat!  And Christmas at Rugby events on Dec. 4 and 11 promise lamplit tours, actors representing historic colonists, traditional music by village carolers, a special church service, shopping, hot wassail served beside a cozy fire and a four-course Victorian dinner!

The Road to Rugby

Historic Rugby, Inc.
5517 Rugby Hwy. (State Highway 52)
For info, directions, reservations or lodging, call 888-214-3400 or visit
Open year-round (except for major holidays)
Mon – Sat: 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Sun: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (First tour after 11 a.m.)
(All hours are Eastern Standard Time)

Admission is $6 for adults, $2.50 for students, free for ages 5 and younger.  Price includes a 12-minute video with interpretive displays and a one-hour guided walking tour through three historic buildings (public library, founder’s home and church).  Parking is free.

Jen Smith is a regular contributor to this publication.  She lives in Bellevue.

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