We spend a lot of time in Dayton, Tennessee – this trip is my tenth time here. In all those times, we’ve never gone to the courthouse. Now, in most counties, that’s a good thing, one of the things on my life list is to Never have a Mug Shot. But in Dayton, there is a reason to go to the courthouse…it is the site of the famous Scopes Trial from 1925. If you are unfamiliar with the Scopes Trial…the Rhea County Museum is not really the place to go for full disclosure, they did a pretty good job of preserving the photos and articles that were published around the nation, but there is no meat. No discussion of what really happened at the trial or even really why it came to be. Fortunately, I had a basic understanding of what it was about before we got there.
Essentially, in March 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law that said only Creationism could be taught in the public school system. It made the Biology texts of the day that suggested Evolution a violation of the law. There were a number of people who wanted to see that law tested, from what I could tell, it was mostly the Bible thumpers. Enter John Scopes, a young substitute teacher who was summoned to the FE Robinson Pharmacy and asked to be the subject of the trial. From there, the whole thing blew up, garnering national attention as the ACLU and many famous orators became involved. The lawyers on both sides were a who’s who of attorneys and politicians of the time. Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, Arthur Garfield Hayes.
The final argument became, was Jonah really swallowed by a whale? It was about literal interpretation of the Bible, if every thing that was written actually happened. It took just nine minutes for the jury to convict Scopes of violating the law, after 11 days of testimony, some of which had been moved to the lawn because so many people were in attendance. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Tennessee law was finally repealed.
My point here is, it is interesting to see what people choose to put in their museums, especially in small towns. The 1920’s were an interesting time and it’s good that Rhea County has decided to preserve their one celebrity status, their first and only 15 minutes of fame. Dayton, Tennessee is a little bit bigger than it was back in 1925, but not much, it’s still a small town at heart. We love coming out here for our time on the mountain, our time with some small town Southern folk, thanks for making us feel welcome.