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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rhea County Courthouse - Dayton, TN

Rhea County Courthouse - Dayton, TN

In 1925, the small southern town of Dayton became the center of National attention as the county courthouse became the venue for one of the most important trials in American History.

In 1890, Rhea County needed to move the county seat from the city of Washington to accommodate the newer growing city on an important rail line. Located in Dayton's town square, the Rhea County Courthouse was built in 1891 as a three story brick structure in a Romanesque Revival-Italian Villa Style. The most noticeable feature at the front on the right is a tall square clock tower with an open balcony topped with an octagonal termination. Offsetting this is a lower tower with a pyramidal roof on the other front corner. Between the towers is the main entrance porch behind a double arch.

In the 1920's Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which made it a crime to teach evolution in school. The ACLU wanted to challenge the Act and offered to defend anyone accused of violating the law, when local businessman George Rappleyea thought the small town of Dayton could use the publicity. He convinced local high school biology teacher John Scopes. Soon, high profile lawyers wanted to be a part of the trial and the Scopes Monkey Trial became the focus of national attention. Former Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan stepped up to lead the prosecution and Clarence Darrow headed the defense. The trial proceedings became the first nationally broadcast radio event.

The prosecution argued that Scopes indeed violated the law and the defense responded that the Butler Act was unconstitutional. Scopes was convicted and the punishment was a fine of $100. The conviction was appealed to the state supreme court and eventually overturned on a technicality (since judges couldn't set fines over $50).

In the aftermath of the film, the film Inherit the Wind was based on the story. In the late 70's, the courthouse was remodeled with the courtroom to look like it did during the trial and the basement floor to become a museum. Since 1987, every year there is a re-enactment of the trial in the same courtroom. The Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is also a U.S. National Historic Landmark. To see my photos related to the courthouse and the Scopes Trial, look here.

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