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Dayton, 75 Years Later - Sidebar: August '00 American History

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 2000 
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The history of the Scopes Trial is far from forgotten in present-day Dayton, Tennessee. The Rhea County town, located on the banks of the Tennessee River between Knoxville and Chattanooga, still embraces its singular historic moment, even as it moves forward into the new century. A diversified manufacturing center of 7,000 residents, Dayton hosts a Scopes Trial reenactment each July.

The drama is presented in the main courtroom of the Rhea County Courthouse, scene of the original 1925 trial. A mostly local cast performs the play, which was written by author Gail Johnson. Occasionally, descendants of the original Scopes Trial participants play some of the parts, and it's not unusual for local attorneys and law enforcement officials to play their counterparts from the past. "Our play is not like Inherit the Wind," says Rick Dye, general manager of a local radio chain. The Broadway play and subsequent Hollywood adaptation are a sore spot in Dayton. "Our play is very factual. It's based 95% on the trial transcripts." Appropriately, Dye portrays Quinn Ryan, a reporter who originally covered the trial for Chicago's WGN radio.

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While the drama is an annual event, interest in the Scopes Trial goes on year round. "I get four or five calls every week," says Ruth Ann Williams, administrative assistant at the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, often a first stop for writers, researchers, and students seeking information. "There is always interest in the trial," she adds.

In the courthouse basement, the Rhea County Historical Society administers a museum commemorating the Scopes Trial. It's open weekdays during courthouse business hours. The collection includes an exhibit on the Jazz Age and biographical displays on the lives of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, together with artifacts from the trial. Admission is free.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Bryan College by William Jennings Bryan. It's a private non-denominational school located on a hilltop overlooking the town and the Tennessee River. Bryan College has a collection of Scopes Trial memorabilia that is currently in storage while the school restores its administration building, which was heavily damaged by fire earlier this year. "Sadly, several rare books were lost," says Dr. Richard Cornelius, retired English professor at Bryan College and resident expert on the Scopes Trial. "We lost William Jennings Bryan's personal copy of Darwin's Origin of Species, but we saved all the trial materials and many other artifacts in the collection." The school hopes to have a new Scopes exhibit accessible to the public when repairs to the fire-damaged building are completed next year. Meanwhile, the school is promoting a series of Scopes lectures and guest speakers, including Edward Larson, whose book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for history.

Between the annual dramatic reenactment, events at Bryan College, and the occasional airing of the movie Inherit the Wind, the town is regularly reminded of the event 75 years ago. As Dr. Richard Cornelius observes about the Scopes Trial, "This is definitely Dayton's most famous moment."

Milton Bagby



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