Dayton, Tennessee appears to be the typical small Southern town. You will find a cute downtown area mixed with old and new businesses. A Walmart and other national retailers line the town’s main strip, U.S. 27. You will find local eateries with those unique tastes you can’t find anywhere else.
And of course, there’s a courthouse. It’s not unusual for the county courthouse to be the most visible and perhaps a town’s most famous landmark. The fame of the Rhea County Courthouse extends past the county line all the way to Hollywood, California. A trial held there in 1925 was called the “Trial of the Century” and for some that title held even after the O.J. Simpson trial. But this wasn’t a murder trial. It was a fight over how human beings were breathed into existence.
By know some of you have figured out I am talking about the Scopes Monkey Trial that took place in Rhea County in 1925. The Rhea County Historical and Genealogical Society tells it best but here’s a brief synopsis of the story:
Tennessee passed a law in 1925 called the Butler Act. It banned teachers from teaching the Darwinian theory that humans evolved from small organisms to monkeys to humans.
High school teacher John T. Scopes was accused of teaching evolution. Some say he actually never taught the theory but wanted to defend it in court. The case attracted two of the most famous attorneys of the day.
William Jennings Bryan served as secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1915. He also had presidential aspirations and run unsuccessfully three times. He agreed to prosecute the case for the state of Tennessee.
Clarence Darrow was already famous for defending another case dubbed the “trial of the century.” He gave a 12-hour long speech while defending two young men accused of killing a 14-year-old boy. While the judge claimed he wasn’t swayed by Darrow’s anti-capital punishment rhetoric, he gave the boys a life prison sentence instead of the death penalty.
The trial was fiery as expected. Darrow even called Bryan to the stand to defend his self-proclaimed knowledge of the Bible. It ended with a guilty verdict against Scopes. He was fined $100 but the verdict was overturned.
Some called the trial a publicity stunt and if it was it worked. The courtroom was packed with curious onlookers and reporters from around the world. If you know anything about Tennessee in July you know it’s hot. People had to want to be there because air conditioning wasn’t a thing in 1925.
The trial was so famous that a movie was made about it even though the names were changed. “Inherit the Wind” starred Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and featured Gene Kelly and Harry Morgan. The teacher was played by Dick York, who became famous as Samantha’s husband on the television series “Bewitched.”
So why the history lesson? Every year the Rhea County Historical and Genealogical Society reenacts this famous trial in the same courtroom where it was held. But it’s more than a reenactment. Vendors gather on the front lawn of the courthouse and bands play throughout the day. I am writing this on July 9, 2022 and the festival is next weekend. If you are reading this after the festival, don’t worry. It’s an annual event.
We attended the play and festival in 2021. Each year the play is different. I was thrilled that our version included the famous cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow. You really feel like you are watching the real trial except you are not having to fan yourself because the courthouse is now airconditioned.
Not every Southerner wants to get out much in July because it’s so hot (me included). You can learn about the Scopes Trial and about the history of area anytime at the Rhea County Heritage and Scope Trial Museum. It’s located in the basement of the courthouse. It’s free to visit and is open regular courthouse hours. Also, there is an interesting mural on the edge of town you must see.
Dayton is about a half-hour north of Chattanooga. It’s also known for its great fishing and outdoor activities. We visited the Lorenzen Family Farm in the spring of 2022 and had a great time picking tulips. The farm has year-round activities. You can learn more about Rhea County here.