Tennessee – Rugby: A Second Son’s Utopia

Primogeniture according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary is “1: the state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents 2: an exclusive right if inheritance belonging to the eldest son.”  Primogeniture assured passage of the throne, baronies and other privileged property holdings since the feudal system in medieval times and was passed into Common Law.  It is the rule by which the whole real estate of an intestate person passed to the eldest son, thereby excluding other sons, daughters, and offspring born out of wedlock. 

In the United States, the practice was legally ended by 1785.  At that point it was legal for the whole of someone’s property to pass to the eldest son, but it had to be done by a will or other directive.  For many working-class families, it remains important to keep their land united since if it were divided into smaller unite it would no longer be enough to sustain a family. 

Primogeniture impacted my family in that my mother’s father was the youngest of several sons born and raised on a farm in Finland.  That farm has been in the family since the 1500s and upon his father’s death it was going to be passed on the eldest brother who was an excellent farmer and temperamentally well suited to the community.  Without local prospects, my grandfather signed up to work on a freighter and jumped ship when it arrived in Canada.  He spoke no English but was a capable lumberjack and was good with horses, so he worked his way across the U.S./Canadian border and eventually found his brother Vic in a predominantly Finnish community in northern Minnesota where both men settled, put down roots, became citizens and raised their families.

In England, life could be difficult for these younger sons as well.  Thomas Hughes was himself a second son who excelled at cricket in school.  He became a lawyer, a member of British Parliament and was the author of Tom Brown’s School Days, a popular novel about the author’s days in school at Rugby in England.  The book remained popular for many years and was sold in many countries and was even translated into Japanese.  The book also led to the spread of the game of rugby beyond the playing fields of its namesake home.     

Hughes was a passionate social reformer who wanted to improve the lot of the English working class.  He was also concerned with the lives of the younger sons of English gentry.  He was particularly sensitive to the lot of others who were on their own, but who had not succeeded in the military, law, medicine, or the clergy, the fields they were expected to take.  Instead, many of these fellows were cast adrift while they attempted to continue living as gentlemen.  They usually had no income and any kind of manual labor would have been considered scandalous.  

Hughes developed an interest in creating an experimental utopian village for these young men and acquired land for a settlement in Tennessee in 1880.  He believed that Rugby, Tennessee, (as he named it) was the answer.  This remote area, about seventy miles northwest of Knoxville, had a four-season yet moderate climate and beautiful wooded landscape.  He believed that in this remote location, far from the judgmental eyes of English society, these young men would be able to learn agrarian skills and flourish, so he bought land and founded an experimental agricultural cooperative whose guidelines were based on the Ideals of cooperation and equality. 

About two hundred people were drawn to the project and they began digging in to build and plant.  They also knew, probably all too well, how to have a good time, so once housing and the other basics were established they added rugby fields, cricket fields, a tennis court and began creating literary societies…ultimately spending more time at these activities than they did at farming. 

Today, the town is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places with about twenty of the original Victorian buildings remaining.  Other residences have been built in this style over the years, and the local residents work hard to maintain the character of the area.  It is an architectural delight to walk or drive the streets or Rugby.  

The visitor’s center is open in the summer months.  There is a short film and exhibits that provide a helpful introduction to Rugby’s development and that is followed by a guided tour of the interior of some of the buildings.   

Our knowledgeable guide led us through some of the beautiful, historic buildings.  My absolute favorite was the Thomas Hughes Free Public Library with 7,000 perfectly shelved volumes.

The lovely Episcopal Church they built is still an inspiring place to worship.  We were fortunate to be there when the organist was practicing hymns for the next Sunday service.

Rugby was preparing for families and a future so they built a school.

Hughes had a lovely home built for himself, which was known as Kingstone, and he brought his mother to Rugby from England.  In the early years, she was the matriarch of this new community, but eventually she returned to her home in England.  

Hotels were built to accommodate the curious visitors who came to see this social experiment and to enjoy the health benefits of the natural environment…that is until the harsh weather set in and a typhoid epidemic hit in 1881.  A brief-lived railroad connection to Chattanooga raised the possibility of Rugby becoming a grand destination for summer and health-related tourism, but the typhoid outbreak ended that.

Like many dreams, the planning of Rugby had not been well thought out.  Rugby reached its peak in 1884, and in spite of the efforts of the agriculture expert Hughes employed, the crops never produced enough to support the community.  The resident population of young gentlemen was not prepared for farming, and poor soil and growing conditions of the Cumberland Plateau further hindered the enterprise.  Hughes could not continue pouring resources into the community to sustain it, so by 1887 only a few residents remained, the rest having died or moved away.  Rugby was left to lie quiet and semi-dormant for years…until in the 1960s restoration efforts were begun to save the remaining structures.  Hughes dream may not be deemed a success, but it has left a delightful destination for a delightful and historic summer drive. 

Looking back, I will tell you that my grandfather’s farm in Minnesota did not even fare as well as Rugby.  Recently, my sister and I went back for a family memorial service, and we stopped by the old place where we had enjoyed summer visits with our grandparents, playing with farm pets and visiting the calves in the barn.

The quarter-mile drive from the road to the house is now so grass choked that we parked at the entrance and walked in.  The forest has reclaimed the pasture and hay fields that my grandfather cleared with his team of horses and the help of his children.  The house, smokehouse, barn, sauna, and sheds that he laid out in the same configuration as the family farm in Finland have fallen away.  Only one shed is still standing as is the red water pump that used to be next to the house.  In the weed-choked distance, the outhouse tilts precariously and is filled with protective wasps. 

Of course our grandparents are gone, as are many of their children…all of whom had moved away to seek lives and occupations far from farm work and the isolation of the remote Minnesota woods.  Now we will have to be content to revisit the old farm only in our childhood memories.

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