This post on Dayton, Tennessee, contains Amazon and Trip Advisor affiliate links. If you click on the links, we may earn a fee. There is no cost to you.

There is something exciting when a family decides to take a road trip. Recently, we hit the road on a journey with Sean’s family.  We traveled to Dayton, Tennessee, to see our Cousin Jimmy. Visiting Cousin Jimmy is always an adventure, and we look forward to the trip twice a year. Dayton is a beautiful and peaceful town about 40 miles north of Chattanooga.

A neat aspect of the journey to visit Cousin Jimmy is that the trip is always filled with thrilling stories from Harold (Sean’s dad), Wanda (Harold’s sister), and Jimmy’s childhoods. We hear about hobos and gypsies hopping off trains across the street from where they lived as children and multi-generational feuds in the Dayton area that put the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s to shame.

On this particular trip, Harold rode in one car, and Wanda rode in another. Their stories colored the vehicles with adventure and longing for days gone by. Stories of their childhoods bring Dayton, Tennessee, to life every time.                        

Since we had such a large group traveling to Tennessee, we asked Jimmy to show us the sites of Dayton. The town is quaint, beautiful, and full of rich history and culture.

Monkey Town

As an old history teacher, I was well-versed in Dayton’s legacy long before I ever graced its mountains and rivers.

In the sweltering summer of 1925, a chain of well-staged events changed the God-fearing town forever. The result of those events was the infamous court case, The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Earlier that year, Tennessee had enacted the Butler Act, which made it illegal for any person to teach evolution in a state-funded Tennessee school. At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone who taught evolution in school.

Clarence Darrow Rhea County Courthouse Dayton Tennessee

A Dayton coal mine owner took the ACLU up on their offer to defend anyone teaching evolution. He arranged a meeting at the local drug store, Robinson’s Drugs, with the superintendent of Rhea County Schools (the county in which Dayton lies) and a local attorney.

Rhea County Court House Museum Dayton Tennessee

No matter which side won, the group would accept the outcome. They asked John Scopes, who taught math and science at the local high school, to work with them in repealing the Butler Act.

John Scopes Dayton Tennessee
Rhea Central High School teacher, John Scopes
Photo courtesy of The Herald-News in Dayton, Tenn.

Scopes intentionally incriminated himself during the case, although he was not sure that he had ever taught evolution. He actually asked his students to testify against him in the trial. The whole event was so staged that many of the proceedings that occurred were known as monkey business.

Scopes Monkey Trial Museum Dayton, Tennessee

Although John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution and arrested, he never spent any time in jail. The owner of the Baltimore Sun newspaper provided the teacher’s $500 bail.  

The Trial

The Scopes Trial was the first trial ever to be nationally broadcast on the radio in the United States. During the summer of 1925, Dayton’s monkey business become the nation’s business.

The prosecutor and the defense attorney gave the trial an impeccable flair. The ACLU’s Clarence Darrow, known as the best lawyer of his time, challenged Evangelist William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was no stranger to politics or the American people. He had served as a member of congress, held the position of Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and ran for president three times. Bryan was known as the great commoner because he believed in the wisdom and truth of the common people.

Scopes Monkey Trial Dayton Tennessee
Clarence Darrow cross-examining William Jennings Bryan during the trial. Proceedings were moved to the courthouse lawn due to the extreme summer heat.
Photo and caption courtesy of The Herald-News in Dayton, Tenn.

Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, although the decision was later overturned on a technicality. Regardless of the outcome, the trial gave the small town of Dayton national publicity and forever a page in American history books. In the years since that summer, Dayton has become known as Monkey Town.

Bryan nor the nation knew that his plight to uphold the Butler Act and creationism would be his last. He died five days after the trial adjourned in Dayton. Locals still wonder if his death was caused by the stress of the trial.

William Jennings Bryan Dayton Tennessee

In 1955, the play, Inherit the Wind premiered, depicting the Scopes Trial. In 1960, the movie was released as well. If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, watch Inherit the Wind (Check it out on Amazon).                                  

The Rhea County Courthouse

Rhea County Courthouse Dayton, Tennessee

Inside the Rhea County Courthouse, there is a newly renovated Scopes Trial Museum. Although it was closed during the hours we were in town on this trip, we have been in years past, and it is a fantastic place to visit if you love American history.

Rhea County Museum Dayton, Tennessee
Photo courtesy of The Herald-News in Dayton, Tenn.

Also located inside the museum is a tribute to local songwriter and publisher RE Winsett. Winsett’s songbooks and hymnals were a staple in America’s churches during the mid-twentieth century.

RE Winsett Southern Gospel Hall of Fame

Winsett was inducted into the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Hall of Fame for works such as Jesus is Coming, the Abiding Faith Hymnal, and the Songs of the Coming King Hymnal. Winsett’s daughter, Marilyn, a dear cousin, has shared many stories with us about her father’s writings and growing up in Dayton.

Blythe’s Ferry and the Cherokee Removal Memorial

Just across the Tennessee River in Meigs County, we visited Blythe’s Ferry. The ferry was once considered a transportation hub, carrying locals and visitors alike across the river between Chattanooga and Knoxville. However, Blythe’s Ferry is far more than an old transportation hub, and its history runs as deep as the river bed.

Blythe Ferry Meigs County

When the Cherokees were brutally forced from their homes in 1838 as part of the Indian Removal Act, those from the Southern United States were rounded up and held in stockades at Blythe’s Ferry. Later known as the Cherokee Removal, the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma became a deep scar upon the soul of America.

The summer of 1838 was unbearably hot, and a drought ran through the land. Almost 15,000 Native Americans were held in twelve stockades on the grounds of Blythe’s Ferry. The government had difficulty transporting the Native Americans across the rolling Tennessee River. Many were held against their will to an unknowing future for over six weeks in the stockades.

There are no accurate records of the deaths that occurred due to the Cherokee Removal. The best contemporary estimate was by Elizur Butler an attending physician to the emigrating Cherokees. He estimated that about: 1,500 died in the Army’s transport by water, 2,000 died in the stockades, and 700 died during the removal by the Cherokees for a total of 4,200.

– Cherokee Nation Census of 1835, edited by Shirley and Ray Hoskins.

The Cherokee Memorial

Today, on that hallowed ground, you can visit the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, a segment of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

While at the memorial park, visit the history wall that highlights early native American cultures and how their history progressed in the region before the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Memorial

A memorial wall lists the names of 2,535 heads of household from the Cherokee Nation who were torn from their land in 1838. The park gives a magnificent tribute to the Native Americans. If you have an opportunity to visit, you will be impacted forever.

Memorial of the Cherokee

Screen Door Kitchen

On our trip, we had the opportunity to eat at the Screen Door Kitchen just outside of the Dayton, Tennessee, town square. The restaurant not only has a wonderful variety of food, but it also has a friendly staff and a significant history itself. The dwelling was built in 1891 as a Catholic School and Boarding Home for children of coal mining immigrants.

We were all delighted with our meals. Our party of eleven began with a homemade pimento cheese appetizer that was delicious. Even the variety of bread served with the pimento cheese was outstanding. Our meals ranged from cheeseburgers and french fries to a full course of meatloaf and potatoes. We will definitely be back to dine at the Screen Door Kitchen the next time we are in town.

Bass Fishing

If you like to cast a line, Dayton, Tennessee, is the place to visit. Often referred to as the Fishing Capital of the South, this town is home to the prized Chickamauga Lake. When you visit, you’ll be fishing in the number one bass location in the Southern United States. The lake is a 38,000-acre extension of the Tennessee River and is known to sponsor over 30 fishing tournaments a year.

Chicamauga Lake Dayton Tennessee

Bryan College

Bryan College Dayton Tennessee
Photo courtesy of The Herald-News in Dayton, Tenn.

In every town we visit, Sean and I take the kids on riding tours of the local colleges. Dayton was no exception. Home to Bryan College, founded in 1930 during the aftermath of the Scopes Trial, the college was founded as a biblical-based institution that teaches the Christian perspective. The namesake of the college is none other than the Scopes prosecutor himself, William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan College in Dayton Tennessee

Cousin Jimmy

Last but not least, on our trip, we were able to taste the best watermelons grown in the south, those of Cousin Jimmy. His melons are large and sweet. Sean’s Aunt Wanda informed us on our trip that produce tastes better in Tennessee due to the state’s fertile soil. After a hardy portion of Jimmy’s watermelon, I must agree with Wanda.

Orange watermelon Dayton Tennessee

On this trip, Sean and I surprisingly experienced tasting an orange watermelon that was so sweet and delicious; it will shake you to your… rhine.

A tip that Cousin Jimmy taught us… when looking for that perfect watermelon, find one with a good “sit spot” or a worn place on the bottom. This spot indicates that the watermelon has had ample time to sit and mature before eating.

Watermelon in Dayton, Tennessee

Blue Water Marina and Campground

As an update, we just returned from visiting Cousin Jimmy (July 2021) and we stayed at the Blue Water Marina in Dayton. We were not able to visit with Jimmy during COVID, so we thought that we would come and stay a few days. Whether you are camping or want to stay in a cabin or their large lodge, Blue Water is fabulous. Jimmy was able to visit us several times at the campground. We fully plan to bring Sean’s mom and dad with us next time. They can stay in a cabin and we will camp next door!

The Scopes Festival

While in town, we were so fortunate to arrive during the Scopes Festival. We accompanied Jimmy to the courthouse for live music, ice cream, and the annual Scopes Trial Reenactment. For the reenactment, we were able to sit in the exact courtroom that the 1925 trial took place. Check out the Scopes Festival that is held annually each July. Celebrating Dayton and its history with Jimmy was priceless.

Traveling is not just for the young or ultra-adventurous. Multi-generational trips give us some of the richest exposure a person can experience. Some of the most memorable stories we’ve heard about our family history has taken place on road trips.

So get your children, your grandchildren, your parents, and your grandparents, and hit the road for memories that will last a lifetime. These trips will enrich you in more ways than you can ever imagine.   

Visit Dayton Tennessee

The next time you visit the area, check out the fantastic landmarks and dining establishments. Maybe we will see you monkeying around in Dayton, Tennessee.   

Dayton, Tennessee
Along the trail at the Laurel-Snow State Natural Area
Photo and caption courtesy of The Herald-News in Dayton, Tenn.

Visit Dayton, Tennessee

Interested in visiting Dayton, Tennessee? Check out Trip Advisor for some fantastic lodging deals in the area!

Do you have a favorite small town that is filled with historical significance? We would love to hear from you. Please drop us a line in the comment section below!            

To learn about other great towns to visit, check out Mayberry, North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *