Bettye Broyles and her successor as president of the Rhea County Historical Society, Justin DeFriese, are working to keep that county’s history alive by pushing for a bigger and better museum of its own. The six-month-old Rhea County Heritage Museum is nestled alongside the Scopes Museum in the basement of the Dayton County Courthouse, and the two are known as one: the Rhea County Heritage and Scopes Museum.
“We’re filling it up. We’re real crowded in the basement. It’s just real packed and jammed almost,” said Mr. DeFriese. “We’d like to have our own building, that’s for sure.”
Ms. Broyles pointed out another drawback - the museum is forced to keep courthouse hours, which she said seem to be worse than bankers’ hours. Many people are talking of a newly vacant hospital building the museum could utilize. Researching that project has been left in the hands of County Executive Billy Ray Patton.
“A lot of the counties are having trouble getting museums because, you know, you’ve got to get money somewhere,” said Ms. Broyles… "The county hasn’t had the money to do it because opening a museum is not cheap.”
“Rhea County is just full of history and we’re afraid it’s getting away from us,” said Mr. DeFriese. “We wanted to start collecting things before they got away,” rather than wait for a new building before even opening the museum. Ms. Broyles said the Rhea County museum discussion has been a 10-year thing. “People have come and gone and died and everything,” she said.
“My house is full of stuff to put in this museum… I know I’m not the only one in Rhea County who has stuff to put in a museum,” said Ms. Broyles.
She has saved her Rhea County ancestors’ clothes, but these must be displayed in climate-controlled cases, which take more space. She said the hospital is a wonderful building and is fire-proof to boot.
The current Rhea County Heritage Museum has a famous fiddler display along with mining and manufacturing memorabilia and prints. The museum acquired a Curly Fox display from the Graysville museum, south of Dayton. “We got his fiddle, too,” said Mr. DeFriese.
Mr. DeFriese said Rhea County’s boom town and county seat, Dayton, used to be a coal and coke mining town until the ‘20s when the mines were shut down. He said local leaders and merchants “thought up” the Scopes trial to bring people and money back into the city. “Of course, now it’s Monkey Town,” he said with a chuckle.
The museum hosts a history of Dayton’s Robinson Manufacturing Company, which was started in the ‘30s by Fred Robinson and now, run by his son Jack, makes things like shorts and a few Nike products. “It puts a lot of people to work in Dayton… Dayton’s just growing by leaps and bounds,” said Mr. DeFriese.
Rhea County will celebrate its bi-centennial year in December with a timeline etched into the Dayton courthouse sidewalk and name plates for the pre-Scopes white oaks and other trees around the courthouse. They’ll also bury a time capsule in the form of a funeral vault in the courthouse yard, not to be unearthed for 100 years. The festivity plans have been likened to the area’s Tennessee Strawberry Festival, with a Christmas parade and everything.
Ms. Broyles, who is 79, has published 65 Rhea County history books with topics on churches, schools, juries and more. Of course, these can be found in the museums and libraries of Rhea County and Chattanooga. Both sides of her family have deep roots in Rhea County. She majored in history at the University of Chattanooga and became an anthropologist. Her 30-year career took her to Illinois, the universities of Georgia and North Carolina and to West Virginia.
Ms. Broyles continues to research and compile information for the museum. Her current project is a red 3-ring binder of “stupid mistakes people have made in Rhea County,” including bank robberies, she said. “When I see something that would make a good publication, I collect it.”
“She’s worked all night on these things,” said Mr. DeFriese. “That’s been her life.”