Rhea County, Tennessee is the home of Dayton, Spring City, Watts Bar Lake, and Graysville. It has volumes of Civil War history, held the famous Scopes Trial of the 1925, and has a fabulous “secret” garden.
My song for this entry is “Secret Garden” by Depeche Mode:
Rhea County was of the few counties in East Tennessee that was predominantly sympathetic to the Confederates and in favour of secession, where towns like Greeneville, Rogersville, and Jonesborough were centers of Union support, Abolition, and civil rights. The people of Rhea County formed several Confederate armies but only one small Union army during the Civil War.
A cavalry of 30 young women formed to support their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the war at at time when women were prohibited from enlisting or serving. They called themselves the Rhea County Spartans and they were the only female cavalry ever formed on either side of the Civil War.
These gals were accused, arrested, and acquitted of espionage, though it is still commonly believed that they were guilty.
The most interesting part of Rhea County history is that the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 took place in its Courthouse. Tennessee in the 1920s held to a rigid Creationist, Biblical-based education system and Sunday school attendance was mandatory. Additionally, the Butler Act prohibited Evolution or science-based education from being taught in public or state-funded schools.
As someone who attended two accredited colleges in Tennessee nearly a century later and obtained a degree, majored in Anthropology, was invited to join the Anthropology Department, and studied Evolution among countless other sciences, the irony does not escape me.
This “Trial of the Century” was actually staged and called a Monkey trial both due to the officials “monkeying around” in a fabricated publicity case, and because of Evolution’s theory that humans descended from “monkeys.”
Because we all love Drunk History videos, I am going to share their rundown of the trial:
Rhea County Courthouse has been on the National List of Historic Places since 1972. The courthouse is home to the Rhea Heritage Association and the Scopes Trial Museum.
Each year, locals reenact the trial inside. Personally I think the idea of staging this type of trial was brilliant from start to finish. Events that unfolded during the trial led witnesses/listeners all over the country to understand what a total crock that Fundamentalist Christianity and Absolute Biblical literalism is.
Although Scopes was fined $100 for breaking the law, many people had already began to evolve in their own right and this led to future successes in legislating the separation of Church and State.
Those who staged the trial with the intention of drawing national attention and tourism to rebuild Dayton’s dying economy were also brilliant because Scopes Trial history continually draws visitors like myself to this day. 96 years later, and there I was traipsing around the courthouse lawn.
Statues of the Defense and Prosecution lawyers are in front of the main Courthouse doors, and a time capsule is buried out on the front lawn that is to be opened in December of 2106. I am going to need one of my readers to remind their grandchildren to check.
I would like to say that Rhea County evolved after all, but it is still quite backwards. In March of 2004, and I mean just 17 years ago, all eight Rhea County commissioners voted for and passed a ban on gay people in the State of Tennessee. I do not understand humans who think they can ban other humans from existing.
Controversy ensued of course, thankfully, and ultimately all eight commissioners resigned or were voted out. Over 400 people gathered to host “Gay Day in Rhea” in May of that year, so I do feel hopeful for this small county and its people. Those I crossed paths with were lovely, welcoming, and happy to tell me about cool sites to visit, so do not hold its leadership against the locals.
If you find yourself in Dayton, take a long walk. There are dozens of historic buildings and interesting sites that I truly enjoyed.
Main Street Dayton is one of the few East Tennessee towns selected for the Main Street revitalization program and “Monkey Town” has slowly started filling in historical structures with cafes and shops.
First Avenue Pizza, Books, & Treats (FAPBT) was a blast. I loved the book tunnel, various book art and decor, and a decent selection of books for sale.
The Mama G specialty pizza has brie cheese, chicken, spinach, red onion, caramelized Balsamic onion jam and vinaigrette. Definitely 10/10. They have gluten-free and keto options, calzones, and about a dozen flavours of gelato.
Monkey Town Brewing next to FAPBT is a micro-brewery, restaurant, and pool hall. It was seriously crowded with what appeared to be a biker meetup so I opted to people watch from a distance while I ate my pizza next door. Seems like a pretty hopping place.
Jennings Coffee was a place of serenity. I picked up a hot tea and talked with the owner a bit about local happenings. The shop closes at 2 on Saturday and is closed altogether on Sunday so plan your visit.
Pendergrass Park is behind the Visitors Center near the corner of Washington Street and Main Street. It is hard to pin down the exact name or location online, but you can’t miss it when you see it.
There is a big, sturdy swinging bridge across the creek, a walking track, picnic areas, and a playground. You can pick up some brochures for other activities inside the Visitors Center while you are there.
My favourite place in Rhea County is Ponds & Plants, just minutes away from downtown Dayton in Graysville. It bills itself as “part botanical garden, part pet store, part zoo, part playground, part wildlife refuge, and part sculpture garden.”
Pull up the long gravel driveway carefully and pay respects to the elder canine Gatekeeper when you park.
Be sure to go inside the storefront and make a minimum donation of $3 each for a wristband or stamp.
They have a lot of exotic reptiles and birds inside the store you can check out as well as all of the dietary mixes and organic fertilizers they make, so brace yourself for the stench.
The grounds are filled with eclectic art and sculptures made of recycled materials, bones, feathers, murals, and a koi pond in the center.
I was thrilled already with the selection of plants in the garden and the interesting art, and then I saw it: a slow-motion wave of iridescent blue, a long train of green and gold feathers, and scratchy little feet. It was my animal totem, my stylistic motif, the peacock!
I watched as it walked through the leaves and spread out its feathers, and within a few seconds more of these beauties appeared.
I had no idea there would be peacocks so I basically sat there stunned for half an hour watching them mill about. Small, large, vibrant, and some of them solid white. The longer I sat still and silent, the more they surrounded me. This was such a wonderful surprise.
Eventually they dispersed again, and I checked out the rest of the garden. One corner has free-range pens for ostriches and emus, a couple pot-bellied pigs, and other animals that vary during the year. Dozens more birds in pens line the opposite side near the building materials.
A sandpit below a hand-carved play cave is made of bones and art that looks like bones.
I am impressed with the number of courses they offer onsite, but even more by how many awards received, and the number of ongoing projects the owners have worked in all over the world including several in my city’s zoo, aquarium, university, and a nearby ski resort town.
In the sunniest part of the garden, there are lots of cacti and succulents on display.
Finding this garden was one of those serendipitous moments in life that reeled me back in when I was feeling disconnected. Gardens, peacocks, bone motifs, and water are all elements that speak to me. Since I shared this place with friends, several of them have visited and even taken their small kids, and everyone had a great time.
Other ideas for Rhea County would be a stop at Harmony House Coffee or the Jacob Myers Restaurant (both closed when I visited), or hike at the Laurel Snow State Natural Area with its two scenic waterfalls and two lovely overlooks. Pocket Wilderness is connected to Laurel Snow, but I am consistently hearing advisories that hikers should only go in groups, not alone, due to both stranger danger and strenuous technical parts.