The Scopes Trial, a BIG dog, and a Speeding Semi… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

In 1925, William Jennings Bryan debated with Clarence Darrow in this courthouse over whether evolution should be taught in Tennessee schools.

The Dayton, Tennessee Courthouse where the Scopes Trial took place in 1925.

I had left Spencer and was heading for Pikeville on Highway 30 when the dog came roaring out to eat me. He was a big dog, a really BIG, ugly dog. His daddy must have been a Bullmastiff and his mommy a Rottweiler. And I am sure that he had experienced an unhappy puppyhood. I was about to drop down a steep hill; thirty feet farther and I could have cranked down on my pedals and been gone. As it was, I leapt off my bike and grabbed my air pump, careful to keep my bike between the monster and me. “No, bad dog!” I yelled. He growled. I reached down and grabbed a large rock. Usually this is a sign for the dog to exit the scene. All he did was snarl deep snarls and creep forward, salivating, ready to pounce. Oh boy, I thought, this is it.

And then fate intervened. It was almost enough to make me change my ideas about God. A bee landed on his nose and stung him. Or maybe it was a large horsefly that bit him. Whatever it was, I was on my bike and out of there faster than he could fall to the ground and start pawing at his abused snout. Had he been a cheetah, he might have caught me. But I doubt it.

The dog would have had to run very fast to catch me.

The dog would have had to run very fast to catch me.

Highway 30 in eastern Tennessee runs in an east-west direction and cuts across the Cumberland Plateau.

Highway 30 at a more leisurely pace.

Another view.

Another view.

I forgave the dog. It was up to his owner to keep him leashed or in his yard. And I suspect he had been trained to behave as he did. I wasn’t so forgiving of the truck driver that gave me flying lessons.

I had been daydreaming and taken a wrong turn out of Pikeville. Discovering my mistake, I had turned around and was happily contemplating a hamburger. That’s when the 18-wheeler came up behind me going about 60.  A car was coming from the other direction. The truck driver didn’t even slow down. He flew by inches away. The turbulence from the rear of the truck literally raised my bike and me three feet off of the ground. I landed hard. How I managed to stay upright, I don’t know. The only damage was two flats. It could have been ever so worse. A kind, Tennessee driver stopped to make sure I was okay. The trucker just kept on trucking.

I made it into Dayton without any further incidents. It’s a pretty town that borders on the Tennessee River. The Scopes Trial is its claim to fame. The event started as a publicity stunt.

Dayton is next to the Tennessee River. After crossing it in Alabama on the Natchez Trace, I had returned to it.

Dayton is next to the Tennessee River. After crossing it in Alabama on the Natchez Trace, I had returned to it.

The Tennessee River flows by Dayton, TN where the 1925 Scopes Trail took place.

I liked this view of it with the sun captured in the trees.

Sunset on the Tennessee River near Dayton in eastern Tennessee.

And at sunset.

In 1925, the State of Tennessee had passed a law that outlawed teaching evolution in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had responded by offering to support anyone who would challenge the law. Some business people in Dayton, meeting over coffee at the local drug store, had decided that jumping into the fray would give their community some much-needed publicity and improve its stagnant economy. They recruited a substitute science teacher, John Scopes, to claim he had taught evolution in the local high school. (Scopes actually didn’t remember whether he had or not.) He was duly arrested and the circus came to town.

The actual table where the business leaders of Dayton plotted out the steps that would lead to the Scopes Trial. The background photograph is of Robinson's drug store where they met with John Scopes.

The actual table where the business leaders of Dayton plotted out the steps that would lead to the Scopes Trial. The background photograph is of Robinson’s drug store where they met. This display is included in an excellent small museum in the basement of the courthouse.

William Jennings Bryan arrived for the prosecution. He was a populist who had run for President (unsuccessfully) three times on the Democratic ticket and was considered the best orator in the US. He had fought against big banks and big corporations. You may be familiar with his most famous quote: “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” He supported women getting the right to vote. He was also a devout Christian who favored prohibition and fervently believed that humans had jumped from clay and ribs to who we are— without any messy steps between. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association sponsored him.

Another view of the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton. A state of William Jennings Bryan is located in front. A debate is going on in the community now over whether to add a statue of Clarence Darrow.

Another view of the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton. A statue of William Jennings Bryan is located in front. A debate is going on in the community now over whether to add a statue of Clarence Darrow, who argued on behalf of evolution.

The architect who planned the Rhea County Courthouse where the Scopes trial took place designed the windows to look like crosses.

A guard at the courthouse was quite proud to show us that the architect of the building had incorporated windows that look like crosses, reflecting the Christian influence of the time.

Clarence Darrow came to defend John Scopes and the cause of teaching evolution in schools on behalf of the ACLU. He shared many of Bryan’s beliefs. He was a populist and Democrat who devoted his life to defending those he considered underdogs. He represented labor interests and became known as one of the best criminal defense lawyers ever. He passionately opposed the death penalty. His religious views were that of an agnostic, believing that we cannot know for sure whether God exists, and, if so, what his (or her) true nature is.

Media came from around the world to witness this colossal battle between science and religion, as did every huckster for hundreds of miles around. The Baltimore Sun sent its nationally renowned reporter, H.L. Mencken, to report on the event. Mencken was noted for his sharp tongue, cynicism, and biting humor. He had coined the phrase ‘Bible Belt’ and had immediately dubbed the Scopes Trial the ‘monkey trial.’ He described the prosecution and jury as “unanimously hot for Genesis.” It was Mencken who had encouraged Darrow to participate.

For all of the hoopla, little was decided by the trial. The judge, a man with fundamentalist beliefs, suppressed any evidence on behalf of evolution. The jury was only allowed to consider whether Scopes was guilty of breaking Tennessee law, which he had according to his own testimony. He was found guilty and fined $100. (The charge and fine were later dropped on a technicality.)

The issue obviously didn’t go away. Millions of words have been written about the trial. It was recreated in the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy.  Tennessee didn’t remove the statute barring evolution from being taught until 1967.

Today, fundamentalists argue that evolution should be taught in US schools only as a theory with “intelligent design” being given equal billing. Teachers, principals, school boards and state legislatures continue to be pressured to bring the Bible back into the classroom. I’ve told the story before how a parent walked into Peggy’s office when she was principal of an elementary school and demanded that all books on dinosaurs in the school library be removed because dinosaurs weren’t in the Bible. She had told the man that he had the right to remove his son from the school, but the books were staying. If the son stayed, he was going to learn about dinosaurs.

Dayton is still reaping the benefits of the trial. It has rebuilt the courtroom where the Scopes Trial took place to look exactly like it did in 1925. Once a year it has a pageant that relives the trial. Peggy and I made a point of visiting the courthouse on our route review.

The stairway up to the courtroom where the Scopes Trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.

Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, John Scopes and everyone else involved in the trial would have walked up these elegant steps.

An exact recreation of the courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee where the scopes trial was held.

The actual courtroom as it has been recreated.

Given that I am 96% great ape, genetically speaking, I take the stand as Clarence Darrow. (grin)

Given that I am 96% great ape, genetically speaking, I take the stand as Clarence Darrow. (grin) The ghostly judge objected to my attire and opinions.

NEXT BLOG: It’s up and over the Great Smokey Mountains and into Cherokee, North Carolina where bears roam the streets! (Sort of.)


43 thoughts on “The Scopes Trial, a BIG dog, and a Speeding Semi… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

  1. I genuinely suffer from cynophobia ( so I sweat when I read the account of your dog encounter.
    Truck drivers are mostly ignorant wherever they use the roads.
    The Stokes trial is interesting even now. I am not especially religious but I have noticed in UK that Church of England is changing its approach to evolution/creation.
    Another good post, I enjoyed it.

    • Read your post on dogs, Andrew. Now tell me how you really feel. 🙂 I get it. Having awakened once around 4 am with a bear standing on top of me, I understand how having a large animal standing on top of you with big teeth and large claws can be a bit disconcerting. I, for one, screamed.
      Much of Christianity now accepts evolution, or at least doesn’t violently oppose it.
      Thanks. –Curt

  2. I love Mencken’s phrase: ““unanimously hot for Genesis.” I’m pretty hot for Genesis myself, but probably not in a way that William Jennings Bryan would approve.

    Despite all I’ve read about the trial, I didn’t realize how it came to be. It may have been in the movie, but I missed that. That has to be one of the best Chamber of Commerce moves ever — or the worst, I suppose, depending on your point of view.

    Big rigs increasingly bother me. They used to be known as the best drivers around, but I’m not sure I’d grant them that title now. Of course, driving generally has turned into an iffy proposition. I’m not one for the government legislating behavior, but the texting while driving business truly does seem worse than eating cereal or putting on makeup. I’m glad you survived the demon driver.

    • I thought it was a smart, albeit a bit cynical, move on the part of the business folks, Linda. It achieved the town’s purpose and continues to generate income for the community today. And I am pleased to see the community is seriously considering adding a statue of Clarence Darrow. I like to think the community has a sense of humor, which is something we could use a lot more of in todays religiously charged atmosphere.
      As for truckers, many continue to show courtesy, but their legendary status where they were excellent drivers and were known for pulling over and helping someone with car problems is a thing of the past. Now they are under constant pressure to get somewhere, fast. Also, the constant need for more and more truck drivers, means that quality control is not always assured, as it should be with someone driving tons of vehicle at excessive speeds down the road. –Curt

  3. That dog was lucky that a bee got it instead of a 22 bullet. Here trucks are getting bigger and bigger too. Sundays are the best for getting somewhere by car or bike when truckies are in bed. You are right, they all are pushed to the limit having to keep tight schedules. Mind you, they too have to keep log books and justify they haven’t been speeding (or taking speed.)

    • Interesting on the pistol, Gerard. Several people argued that I should carry a weapon on my trip, more for two legged critters than four. I didn’t. I never have since my youth when I grew up hunting. And this includes wandering in the back country of Alaska where big bears live.
      Truckers always want bigger trucks. 🙂 I ran into some huge three-trailer monsters up in Quebec. For the most part, they are limited to two trailers. There are plenty out on our highways on Sunday. I remember the days there weren’t. –Curt

  4. Rude motorists (regardless of what they’re driving) are the main reason I try to stick to bike paths. Hard to avoid aggressive dogs, but as you say, it’s down to responsible owners. Love the pics.

    • For the most part, considering I rode 10,000 miles, the motorists were mainly courteous, Peggy. It only takes one or two, however. I certainly became more relaxed as the trip went on. But I always tried to be aware of traffic. And thanks. –Curt

  5. The truck was bad enough Curt, but OMG the dog! I would have been terrified. Praise the lord for that bee! (Or something :))
    Re the issue sod the Scopes trial: for a so-called intelligent species we can be breathtakingly stupid. That’s all i have to say. 🙂

    • Well said, Alison.
      That dog was a piece of work. As for the bee, the best description is Deus Ex Machina, where the gods would suddenly enter the scene in ancient Greek plays (lowered by a rope of course) and solve the problem. 🙂 –Curt

    • 🙂 Happens to me all of the time. I did a WP survey the other day and told them that one of the few things I didn’t like was how their spell check automatically changes words. –Curt

  6. A terrific summary for this outsider – thanks for posting. The current argument about creationism seems like a photographic negative of Scopes – is it scientific, appears to be the issue. Governments get round the argument by deregulating schools under the banner of ‘choice’. A can of worms indeed …

  7. Fascinating history about Williams Jennings Bryan and bet it was interesting to visit the court room replica. I can’t believe Peggy was told not to stock books on dinosaurs; feels like a different world and good for her for staying her ground. Curt, your adventures seem to be taking a turn to the dangerous. Take care, the dog sounds terrifying. Last week Near to us a three-year old boy was killed by a bulldog, tragic. My son’s friends know the family and knew the little lad. A family ‘pet’!!

    • It was, and the Scopes trial was something I had heard about all my life, Annika. Peggy is always a delightful and kind soul, but you don’t mess with her. 🙂
      There is a certain amount of inherent danger in outdoor adventures, but no more than other types of adventures if you are knowledgeable about what you to and don’t take foolish risks. This approach has allowed me to have many wonderful experiences. And I am still here. 🙂 –Curt

  8. Your writing on the Scopes Trial is so interesting and certainly worth a read in current time.
    As far as that dog goes. I believe the Universe will step in as needed to assist.
    Just a delicious post. Thank you. All my best to you, Curt. 📮

  9. Excellent background, description, and photos from Dayton — even though I’ve heard most, you write clearly about one of Tennessee’s most famous trials. And good for Peggy, not letting the dinosaur books leave the library. I’ve heard of Banned Books Week, but dinosaur books are never mentioned . . . and should be! As always, good reporting.

    • Thank you Rusha. Dayton and the trial had been a fascination of mine for years. I was excited to get there, on both my bike trek and our van trip.
      The dinosaur book was a real surprise to me. The workings of the human minds, and the strange paths they take are always interesting, and sometimes downright scary. –Curt

  10. I appreciate the summary of the Scopes trial, having only vague ideas of what it was all about. When you described media hoopla and performing chimpanzees, I thought of the current presidential debates… Anyway, the silver lining is that Dayton is on the map and got a little tourist revenue out of this.

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