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Home Road Trip Road Trip Issue 2023: Rugby, Tenn. | Cover Stories

Road Trip Issue 2023: Rugby, Tenn. | Cover Stories

by Staff

In the late 1800s, English author Thomas Hughes sought to make a Christian socialist utopia in rural Tennessee. Rugby, a town about two hours and 20 minutes east of Nashville, was developed to be a place where younger sons of English high society could make a name for themselves. The original plan failed, but the site was never completely deserted. Today, Rugby is a special place for its dozens of residents, who are mainly history buffs and outdoorsy folks who like the quiet and tight-knit community. There are also plenty of stories of past residents who supposedly still hang around in ghost form.  

My road trip partner Morgan and I stopped for dinner in Cookeville, home to Tennessee Tech and the biggest town along the way. The downtown has cute shops like Plenty Bookshop and Glass Tangerine. The girls at Glass Tangerine suggested a homemade tortellini dish at Father Tom’s Pub, which was very tempting, but they also said we couldn’t go wrong with Crawdaddy’s. We were thrilled to be offered $3.99 pink drinks on special from our adorable waitress, who greeted us with an effusive, “Hi, girlies.” The lobster mac-and-cheese was generous and tasty, and we took the server’s suggestion and got pesto-goat-cheese dip with chips and the hot garlic shrimp. The food was very good, and I think the reasonable prices made it taste even better. Following that up with ice cream at Cream City was a treat, especially because they had orange sherbet — practically obsolete in Nashville creameries. We sat by the Cookeville Depot Museum’s defunct steam engine and listened to some live old-timey music. Spirits were high. 

If you’re going to Rugby, please do not make the same mistake I did — be sure to get there before dark, even if that means skipping the detour to the Crossville Buc-ee’s. (We didn’t.) The winding rural roads are hard to navigate at night, not to mention spookier than I’d like.


I was relieved to see other cars and know we were not the only people staying in the Historic Newbury House. I was decidedly less relieved to see two women walking out of the woods with flashlights. I was partway up the stairs when they let us know they’d be doing a paranormal investigation in the living room that night. I knew there were paranormal tours of the village, but I didn’t expect such an investigation to be happening right below our room. (Author’s note: I wrote this at 3 a.m. because I know that’s paranormal hours, and I am too afraid to get up to pee.) Still, it was sweet of them to invite us to join, and it was one of the investigators’ birthday — I wanted her to have a good time. Besides, if anything went sideways, there was a rotary phone outside the house, which meant I could call whoever was in charge of this place (unclear), or the police.

We stayed in the room named for Margaret Hughes, Thomas Hughes’ mother, who made the trek to Rugby at the age of 83. We later learned that she was the matriarch of the community, someone who constantly had visitors and was well-loved. It was a relief to be staying in the room named for someone who left the earth on pretty good terms. The room was cooled by a window air-conditioning unit and featured no-frills accommodations. It was nice to be walking distance to the village’s festivities, though if I revisited, I think I’d take greater advantage of the downstairs sunroom, kitchen and card table. 

Down the hall was a room named for a Rugby resident who died there, and according to the very reputable “Rumor has it that single female guests have been known to wake up in the middle of the night with the ghost of a man standing over their bed. Reports believe the ghost is Charles Oldfield.” Another source says he’ll say, “Hey girly.” Insult to injury, if you ask me. The next day our new friends told us their many ghost-tracking gadgets lit up, but didn’t specify if the ghost was an incel of sorts. 

Gentleman’s Swimming Hole


Saturday started off strong with a one-hour historical tour with our guide Brian. He was an excellent and engaging tour guide, worth much more than the $7 we paid per tour. We marveled at the gorgeous Christ Church Episcopal, which we heard is hosting a “royal” gay wedding for two of the residents later this summer. The Thomas Hughes Library is full of beautifully preserved original books that date back to the 1880s. We ended the tour at the schoolhouse-turned-museum, where we listened to theories of why the colony ended — typhoid fever, a severe first winter, less-than-fertile soil, mismanagement, the fact that the younger sons didn’t know how to do manual labor, etc. 

Fire is also unfortunately a recurring theme in Rugby. In 2019, the town’s cafe burned down, which locals say hurt tourism. A few months ago, The Canteen food truck opened, becoming the only food option in Rugby proper. I had an excellent ham-and-provolone sandwich with grilled tomatoes and pesto, while my travel partner loved her turkey-and-brie with pears. It would have been a good idea to bring some extra food along, but we dropped the ball on that one. We did, however, enjoy the brick-oven pizza and drink selections at the Sawbriar Brewing Company, about 20 minutes down the road in Jamestown. 

We were fortunate to have lunch from The Canteen with George Zepp, a former Tennessean reporter and author of Hidden History of Nashville, who has family connections to the village and an encyclopedic knowledge of the area. We also learned the ins and outs of printing a newspaper in the 1880s from Pete, a Mainer with a love of printing and telling you about it at Rugby Printing Works. I suggest taking cash to tip him and the other area craftspeople. Next door you’ll find Freeman at the Board of Aid to Land Ownership office and art gallery. I wish I could buy one of her beautiful paintings of local landscapes, but I did get to enjoy her expertise during a festive Paint and Sip experience. 

Hungover from the shared giant bottle of white wine at Paint and Sip, we followed along to observe the tradition of Irish Road Bowling, which started promptly at 6 p.m. We deduced that if you’re a local, nobody claps for you — but if you’re a visitor, there will be applause. The paranormal investigators we’d met the night before surprised themselves by nailing the niche sport, and ended up holding the charred trophy that survived the 2019 cafe fire. 


Irish Road Bowling winners

Rugby is also close to a number of hiking trails. We did a short (downhill) hike to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole and back (entirely uphill). I had hoped to swim, but the water was too high and looked too much like chocolate milk. You’ll need water shoes. Still, it was enough to justify a stamp in Morgan’s national parks passport, for the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Exhausted from the ghostly loss of sleep and day full of chitchat, we were ready to head back to the city. But if you wanted to keep the strange history party going, you could drive 30 minutes further to the Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, where you can see the old cells in addition to eating barbecue and drinking moonshine. 

On its face, Rugby is quiet and quaint, with some interesting history and pretty buildings. But on closer examination, it’s today’s residents who really make it shine. There will be more paints and sips and road bowling, as well as ghostly tours, car shows, festivals and even an adult summer camp coming up. Seeing the locals so invested in their Victorian village made me invested too. When you’re in rural Tennessee, listen to the (living) locals.

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