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British utopia in Tennessee

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The original banister from Chaucer's Tabard Inn in the Tennessee wilderness? Yes. And a fine library, lawn tennis, roads named Donnington, Harrow, and Newbury.

These were some of the features found at the Rugby Colony a hundred years ago , the utopian experiment established by Thomas Hughes, the 19th-century British novelist and social reformer, in Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau. To go there today is to step back in time, for although the Tabard Inn is long gone, many of the fine Victorian buildings of this outpost of British colonialism are now restored and open to the public.

The Rugby Colony was the culmination of Thomas Hughes's concern for young people born into what he believed was England's unjust social system. No provision was made for the children of large families in the new industrial society after the firstborn had inherited the family property. At Rugby, he hoped they could learn ''collectively'' the value of manual labor and husbandry and develop enough skills to ensure a happy and productive existence. With this as his goal, Hughes used money earned from his most popular novel, ''Tom Brown's Schooldays,'' to form a land development company. He and a few influential friends bought 35,000 acres of land in the wilds of Tennessee. The good news was that it provided unlimited building material for the future farmers. All but one acre was covered in timber. The bad news was that a lot of land had to be cleared before cultivation could begin. The inexperienced young colonists were probably overwhelmed from the beginning.

How impractical the young people were was soon revealed to Hughes when, on his first visit to Rugby in 1880, he reported his disappointment that they seemed unable to do without elaborate meals and a regular 6 o'clock tea. The absurd amount of time and energy they spent clearing riding trails and lovers' walks caused Hughes to shake his head in consternation, but when he was shown the tennis court of the already formed Rugby Tennis Club, he could only write, ''Such are infant communities in these latitudes.''


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