In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, or maybe he didn’t, but either way vast ribbons of peat came to rest under what became the foothills of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, and in time the peat became coal, and later the railroads arrived, along with mines and coke ovens, and near one lazy arc of the Tennessee River workers built homes to return to after their long days of burrowing and burning, and the homes became a town, and the town was called Dayton.
It was here in July 1925 that John T. Scopes was tried and convicted of teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school. And it’s here, nearly every July since 1987, that he has been retried and reconvicted as part of the Scopes Trial Play & Festival. Every year, the same verdict is read (guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it illegal for state-funded instructors “to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals”) and the same fine is levied ($100) by a man playing a judge sitting behind the same bench in the same second-floor courtroom at the Rhea County courthouse where the case was first heard nine decades ago.
For much of the outside world—even just forty miles downriver, in Chattanooga, where I grew up—Dayton has long functioned as both punch line and punching bag, especially in recent years. In 2004, the Rhea County commission briefly approved a measure banning gay people from living in the area. In 2006, a local woman named June Griffin stole a Mexican flag from a downtown grocery store because she felt the proprietors didn’t speak sufficient English. Griffin had earned some notoriety the year before when she appeared in a Daily Show segment filmed in town. “What’s your take on the Scopes trial?” comedian Ed Helms asked her. “Evolution is a total fabrication and a lie,” she said. When she announced her candidacy for Tennessee governor, the Nashville Scene wrote, “Griffin is creepy, racist and terrifyingly xenophobic. Fittingly, she’s a resident of Dayton, Tenn. (of Scopes Monkey Trial fame).”
Dayton is one of thousands of small American towns besot by hyper-conservative goofery, but the residue of the Scopes trial seems to trap and magnify it, even all these years later. Over those two weeks in July 1925, journalists swarmed in from across the country, their baser tendencies prevailing on a new, massive scale—it wasn’t the first “trial of the century,” but it was the first broadcast live over the radio. Preachers and monkey-souvenir vendors peddled their wares on streets clogged with looky-loos. The defendant lent his name to the production, but the counsel starred: famously agnostic Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow led the defense, with populist statesman turned fundamentalist vanguard William Jennings Bryan a figurehead of the prosecution. Chief among the gawking scribes was H. L. Mencken, whose dispatches for the Baltimore Sun and The Nation bemoaned Dayton’s “forlorn mob” of “rustics” and “gaping primates.” Dayton was a “ninth-rate country town,” he sneered, a “dung pile” destined to be “a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.”
And then came Inherit the Wind, on stage in 1955 and on screen in 1960, in which Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee interpolated the trial’s narrative in service of an anti-McCarthyism parable, à la Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The story was presented as fiction but accumulated an honorary factualness, becoming a proxy of the history it dramatized. Its images of the small-minded South were indelible: as a female alto warbles “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion,” men in dark suits march to a high school where they find a young teacher, Bertram Cates, lecturing on Darwinism. Cates is dragged from the classroom and jailed. One night, locals mob outside his cell window, carrying torches and itching to lynch him. A bottle thrown at the barred window showers Cates with broken glass.
But the real story of the trial, like Dayton itself, began with the mines: they were dwindling, the town was suffering, and a group of local boosters—including drug store owner and school board president F. E. Robinson and school superintendent Walter White—were looking for a pick-me-up. Meanwhile, the fledgling ACLU was offering pro-bono legal representation for any teacher accused of breaking Tennessee’s recently passed Butler Act. Soon as the boosters got a whiff, they pounced. The trial was bound to be a big to-do somewhere, so why not Dayton? A willing defendant was found in John T. Scopes, a teacher and football coach at Rhea County Central High School. “I wasn’t sure if I had taught evolution,” Scopes wrote in his 1967 memoir. “Robinson and the others apparently weren’t concerned with this technicality. I had expressed willingness to stand trial. That was enough.”
Scopes was served with a warrant but never incarcerated. At the end of his eight-day trial, Bryan and the prosecution had won. But, in a way, so had the defense—among other maneuvers, Darrow had angled all along for a guilty verdict, planning to appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court. (He did; they upheld the ruling, but dismissed Scopes’s fine on a technicality.) Both sides left town nursing a certain sense of bruised victory. The only clear loser was Dayton.
The 25th Scopes Trial Play & Festival commenced on a Friday afternoon in mid-July of last year, the sky an unsettling October blue. Dayton had recently made regional headlines after an anti-gun-control billboard featuring a photograph of Adolf Hitler appeared on the outskirts of town, but I saw it nowhere along the stretch of Highway 27 I took up from Chattanooga, just a daisy chain of old houses and new gas stations, bait shops, gun stores, a sign for Old Hicks Road. I was ushered into town by a gauntlet of churches, the largest boasting a strobing LCD marquee and fluttering car-lot bunting.
As I approached downtown, I braced myself for the crowds. The Butler Act was repealed in 1967, but teaching human origins in Tennessee classrooms remains a touchy subject; in 2012, the state passed legislation protecting instructors who taught “alternatives” to accepted scientific theories such as evolution (and, increasingly, climate change). So a festival celebrating organized religion’s government-assisted triumph over science seemed like a sure draw. But at first, the John Deeres gathered on the courthouse’s side lawn for the festival’s tractor show were the only indication I had arrived on the right day.
Around the front of the building—three stories and a clock tower, red brick—I found a smattering of vendors lining the sidewalk. Behind one table spread with chunky beaded jewelry, a poster declared GOD KNEW YOUR NAME BEFORE YOU WERE BORN. To one side of the courthouse steps, a vinyl banner said READ YOUR BIBLE. The chalkboard menu of Heavenly Dogs (“Our hotdogs are heavenly”) advertised a Scopes Trial Special, two beef franks and a bag of chips for five bucks. On the lawn was an imposing bronze statue of William Jennings Bryan, who popularized the anti-evolution movement that inspired the Butler Act, was conscripted to the prosecution as more of a mascot than a legal mind, and died while napping in Dayton five days after the trial. Bryan College, the fundamentalist Christian school founded here in his memory, originated the festival in the late 1980s, but dropped sponsorship in 2000 to focus on projects illuminating the glorious whole of its namesake’s life rather than his fraught final weeks. In 2013, a flyer told me, sponsors included the local civic group Main Street Dayton, the Rhea County Historical & Genealogical Society, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the local Holiday Inn Express, the blandness of which was somehow reassuring.
There were two plays on the festival docket, both staged in the original second-floor courtroom, and I bought tickets from a woman wearing earrings made from Barrel of Monkeys pieces. Friday’s matinee, a one-act imagined conversation between Bryan and Darrow staged by a Wisconsin performance troupe, billed itself as historically accurate but showed its hand when its Bryan began pontificating on intelligent design theory, a strain of creationism not codified until the 1980s. I took it as a vote of no confidence that there appeared to be more people watching the rickety bluegrass band outside, where the temperature was sweltering even in the maple-tree shade. But later that night, the courtroom was filled for the festival’s main event, the premiere of a new commission called Front Page News. With the shaky charm of community theater—poor enunciation buffered by enthusiasm—the play opened and closed with the town boosters mulling over their plot at Robinson’s drugstore, the courtroom drama comprising its sticky middle. Between scenes, reporters in boater hats jostled to the front of the newel-post bar. One arched his eyebrow as he quoted Baltimore Sun reporter Frank Kent: “A lot has been written since the trial began about what the outside world thinks of Dayton. Nothing has been written about what Dayton thinks of the outside world. It would be interesting to know.”
Afterward, the director, Dayton native Morgan Robbins, told me she isn’t religious, “can’t see any way other than evolution,” and almost turned down the gig. But the script, commissioned from Johnson City, Tennessee, playwright Deborah DeGeorge Harbin, won her over. Assembling a largely male cast in a town of 7,200 turned out to be a gnarlier prospect. Only five actors showed up to Robbins’s audition, but one was George Miller, portly with a booming drawl—her Bryan, she knew. Still, he needed direction, especially when it came to the trial’s climax, when Darrow examines Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible: Did that whale really swallow Jonah? Where did Cain get his wife? How long ago was the Great Flood, exactly?
“I was trying to get him to sweat a little bit when he took the stand,” Robbins said. “I was like, ‘Can you get a little more nervous? Your religion is being questioned—can you have that in your body, that you’re uncomfortable with this?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t think Bryan would have been uncomfortable with this. Bryan’s a hero. Do you realize how many people are pro-Bryan? I don’t want to be met outside with pitchforks when I’m done.’”
But on opening night, Miller straddled the line between piety and bluster, his face morphing between flustered folds and satisfied grins. Across the aisle, festival veteran Rick Dye, the self-proclaimed “sole agnostic of the group,” played Darrow with a wry, crackling energy. Scopes sat in the middle, silent, looking alternately bored and overwhelmed—an unlikely dream role for Bryan theater major Dakota McClellan. “I wanted to play him if I ever got the chance, because he stood up for what he believed in, and that’s how I am,” he told me later. “I’m on the other side, but as actors we have to get out of our comfort zones, do something different.”
The play ended how it always ends: Scopes guilty, Bryan dead. After taking their bows the cast disappeared into a mob of handshakes and bouquets. Outside, no pitchforks—just the lingering scent of Scopes Trial Specials and the stammer of camera flashes as playgoers posed with the stately bronze Bryan in the dark.
Saturday morning, the festival’s second and final day, I sardined into a first-floor courtroom where signs said please do not sit on the A/C units or approach the bench unless directed by the judge or pass tobacco products to the inmates. A procession of locals had gathered to talk about their connections to the trial, each taking turns on the witness stand. Ninety-five-year-old Beverly Wilson was the only one who had been alive during the trial, though she didn’t remember much about 1925 except her parents arguing—not about theology or science but whether to name her baby brother “Evolution.” Jeff Stewart, grandson of Tom Stewart, one of Scopes’s prosecutors, confessed that his grandmother went to her grave feeling responsible for Bryan’s death; the diabetic had eaten his penultimate meal at her dinner table, including an entire platterful of sliced, salted tomatoes. Pat Guffey, Rhea County’s historian, piped up to reassure Stewart that Bryan’s death probably had more to do with his final meal, taken at the Rogers family home, during which he consumed two whole chickens.
Most stories followed this pattern of ramble and swerve; what seemed remarkable was that they were being told at all. When Tom Davis, the Scopes festival’s chairman, moved to Dayton for a newspaper job in 1976, he was surprised to find the trial’s history languishing. “We just ought to forget that it ever happened,” he was told. But over the next decade, the stranglehold loosened, and in the early 1990s, Davis was hired as a Bryan College public information officer and tasked with organizing the nascent festival—an effort, in part, to coax the town further out of its passive quagmire. “We have not lived down the stigma that came with Inherit, and I really do blame us for a lot of that,” said Davis, who’s now Rhea County’s administrator of elections. “We haven’t made a real good effort, first of all, to tell the story—just to simply say, ‘Look folks, here’s what really happened.’ We have let the caricature of a narrow-minded, terribly unthinking fundamentalist mentality ride.”
Dayton’s tuck-tailed silence has had certain aesthetic repercussions, too. Saturday afternoon I boarded a squat school bus for what amounted to a tour of former Scopes-related sites. In place of Robinson’s drug store, there’s a postage-stamp park, a swath of asphalt, a cinderblock office building for rent. A different house stands in place of the one where Bryan died. Rhea County Central High School, where Scopes taught, closed in 1930 and soon reopened as the first location of what was then called William Jennings Bryan University. It was a handsome school, stout dark brick with a mansard roof. Now it’s gone, too.
If Bryan hadn’t died here and made way for the school, the town might have unraveled completely—the mines closed in 1930, just before the Great Depression rolled in. Dayton eventually came back as a manufacturing town, which it remains today, lately cultivating a sprawl of strip malls and chain stores. Bryan College hosts 1,300 students every year, or retains them—many are local and many more settle in Dayton after graduation to raise their own kids here. There are lakes and hills and woods all around, old coke ovens turned into nature preserves. Niche tourism is on the rise, so there’s even a chance the old boosters’ scheme might finally pay off. Coal isn’t the best source of metaphors for sustainable industry, but some things do need time to sit under great pressure before they can be of use. The Scopes Trial Museum, housed in the courthouse basement, brings in a few thousand visitors each year; in 2013, a few hundred attended the festival. Not quite Disney World, but it’s more appealing than blinkered silence. “We’re beginning to think, ‘Okay, everybody along the Tennessee River has a lake and a fishing spot. Not everybody has the Scopes trial courthouse,’” Davis told me. “We don’t have to agree that we are ignorant bumpkins just because somebody thinks that—we can show them who we really are and what we’re all about if we can get them here.”
Saturday evening, taking Highway 27 out of town, I finally saw the Hitler billboard. I pulled into an auto parts store parking lot and stared up. WAKE UP AMERICA it demanded—the “I” a clip-art shotgun—above the Fuhrer’s sour mug. I snapped a photo, posted it online. Soon friends began administering their rueful hearts and stars and thumbs-up, just like I knew they would. Back at home, I showed my parents the photo and we shook our heads and laughed, just like I knew we would. It was so easy, sinking my fist back into that old punching bag—I didn’t even think about it at first, but then I did, and I felt bad. Because I thought I knew better. And I’d come to think maybe Dayton did, too.