People & Events: The Site of the Trial: Dayton, Tennessee
It's springtime in Dayton, Tennessee, population around 6,000. The annual strawberry festival, with its parades and street vendors, gives the town a festive air. Eloise Reed takes a visitor on a tour of the town. "It looks so strange when I think back to those years," she says. "There's not a building on this street that was here in 1925. Every one of them is either gone or been replaced."
She stops at a small plaque on an open grassy area. "This is the spot where Robinson's Drugstore stood, right next to the big Aqua Hotel. This is the place where, around the table in Robinson's Drugstore, the Scopes trial originated."
Nestled in the Tennessee River valley between Chattanooga and Knoxville, Dayton was founded after the Civil War. In 1880 it was only a village of 200. But when the Southern Railway line came through the valley, Dayton grew quickly. The Dayton Coal and Iron Company employed hundreds of people, and by the turn of the century the town was fueled by both industry and agriculture.
Then, in 1913, the Coal and Iron Company went bankrupt. People left Dayton to find work elsewhere. By 1925 hard times had come to Dayton. Dayton's population dwindled from 3,000 to 1,800. But according to historian Edward Larson, Dayton refused to give up. "Local civic leaders began courting new industry. They opened a new high school when many Tennessee towns still offered only elementary education. And they dreamed and schemed of making their town more than just another farming community."
That dreaming and scheming finally paid off when a group of businessmen decided to indict one of their own teachers with his consent for violating a new anti-evolution law. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, they hoped the trial of John Scopes would be a shot in the arm for Dayton. Eloise Reed was just 14 years old at the time, but she remembers how the grownups felt. "They expected people to come in and spend some money. And help advertise our town."
Continuing our tour, Reed points out the former site of Dayton's biggest hotel -- the Aqua. During the Scopes trial the town was so crowded that hotel had to turn people away. Many of the reporters and attorneys stayed at the homes of local residents, who escaped the sweltering July heat in the cool sanctuary of the hills during the trial. It was so hot in town that newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken described Dayton as having "the atmosphere of a blast furnace."
Though the Scopes trial didn't significantly boost the local economy, it did put Dayton on the map. People came from all over the world to see the courthouse where the famous trial took place. In 1960, Dayton celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Scopes trial with the premiere of a Hollywood film, Inherit the Wind. Director Stanley Kramer invited the whole town to see the film at the local drive-in. This fictionalized account of the trial portrayed the town of Dayton as a hotbed of religious fanatics so threatened by evolution that they arrested one of their own teachers, put him in jail, and threw rocks at his window while he waited to go on trial.
Undaunted by this negative portrayal, members of the chamber of commerce used the anniversary celebration to advertise their community. In a fold-out brochure with an aerial photo of Dayton on its cover, they listed the town's vital statistics: a population of 5,000, an annual average temperature of 60 degrees, and a total of 13 churches, representing Protestant and Roman Catholic faiths.
Dayton was especially proud of the fundamentalist college in the hills above town -- named for prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, who died just five days after the Scopes trial ended. Today Bryan College has an enrollment of 500 students from 30 states and 10 foreign countries.
Every year Bryan College and the town of Dayton sponsor a re-enactment of the Scopes trial in the courthouse where the real event took place. Outside the red brick building Eloise Reed stops and points to a shady area where the most sensational event of the trial unfolded before a crowd of 2,000.
"I sat right here," she says, "in front of a platform where Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan as his witness. From my point of view, Darrow made a monkey out of himself. Bryan held on to his belief in the Bible. They said sassy things to one another. I would have liked to have gotten up there and kicked Darrow because I thought he was being so unfair."
She takes one last look before walking across the lawn to her car. "It turned out to be the best show in town," she says. "And I got to see it!"
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