Dayton, TN: The little town you never knew you needed to visit

August 16, 2020

If you live in Chattanooga or one of its surrounding areas, you've probably been to - or at least heard of - Dayton, TN. It's one of those quintessential small southern towns. You know - the kind that conjur images of people sitting on their front porch, sippin' sweet tea, a quaint Main Street with little mom & pop type stores, and a church on every corner. Cute, right? Well if you were passing through Dayton, you'd think just that, but you'd be wrong. Dayton is so much more than that.

Sit down students, and I'll give you a quick history lesson that I'm not qualified to give (but my brief research from the town monuments/plaques & Google certifies me as otherwise). Dayton is pretty much famous for one thing: the Scopes Monkey Trial (hence why Dayton is nicknamed "Monkey Town"). In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which basically banned evolution being taught in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union then ran an ad in a Chattanooga paper for a teacher who would challenge this. Nearby Dayton saw this as a chance to attract publicity & revive its economy if they could host the trial, so they found John Snopes (a football coach), who agreed to go head to head in court to challenge the law (so essentially they convinced him to get arrested).

Basically, once the trial started, it was one giant publicity stunt to attract people to Dayton, and they milked it for all it was worth. The trial itself made national news and attracted thousands of onlookers. Dayton capitalized on this by essentially becoming a circus, complete with the "missing link" & chimpanzees to entertain the crowd. And thus, Monkey Town was born. There's a ton more to this story, so if you want to read more on how it ended, this History article is pretty in-depth. Or if you like your history with a side of humor (like me), you will find this Drunk History video much more entertaining. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Let's count down the top things you must do when in Dayton!

1. Screen Door Kitchen
I wish I had known the full history of the building before we went, because I think I would have appreciated it that much more, but this place is a must-do! It's a super cute restaurant in a very old house that used to be a school, called St. Genevieve's Academy. It opened in 1891 and the former classroom is now one of the dining rooms, and even still has a portion of the blackboard still there.

Over the years, it's changed owners quite a bit and in 2004, it became a restaurant. Like any good southern restaurant, you'll find lots of traditional dishes here like catfish, fried green tomatoes, and of course...sweet tea! I opted for the grilled pimento cheese sandwich, topped with a fried egg. It was very delicious and I would definitely recommend it.

2. Tennessee & Coca-Cola Murals

No trip is complete without finding a mural or 2. Dayton is actually pretty scenic and there a lot of cute spots for photo ops. We just happened upon this mural as we were driving down Main Street.  It's located at 1158 Market Street & is on the side of the Nationwide Insurance building.

Another cute spot is the faded Coca-Cola mural. This one faces a general store along the corner of the town square. You can find this located on the corner of 2nd Ave & Market St.

3. Monkey Town Brewing

Monkey Town Brewing is the local brewery in Dayton. In addition to serving up some seriously delicious brews, the pub also has plenty of food. Since we had just eaten, we were only interested in getting drinks. My indecisiveness always leads me to picking beer flights at breweries, since I like to try a little bit of everything and can never settle on just one. I was so glad I got to taste-test a few brews because they all sounded so good on paper, and they lived up to the hype.

4. Ponds & Plants
On our way back home, we passed a sign on the side of the interstate that read "Ponds and Plants" accompanied by a giant dinosaur and a crocodile. I did a double take and turned to my husband. "Was that...was that a stegosaurus?" A quick geo tag search on Instagram turned up the location's account, and I quickly discovered that a stegosaurus in the middle of nowhere on the side of the highway was probably the most ordinary thing about this place because things were about to get very, very the best way possible.

Ponds & Plants is like if you took a zoo, a nature center, a pet store, and a sculpture garden and mashed them all together. There is an admission fee, but it's super cheap & worth it. The grounds themselves are really beautiful and full of plants (you can't name your park "Ponds & Plants" and then not deliver on that promise)! The Tibetan temple garden gave me some serious Animal Kingdom vibes and was one of my favorite spots (super peaceful). 

There are legit numerous peacocks that roam the grounds (& they will let you get pretty close!) as well as emus, pigs, turtles, and several other random animals. You can feed the pigs, peacocks or koi for just a few dollars as well. All of the exotic animals make this place great for kids, too! Lilly thoroughly enjoyed exploring & seeing all of the different animals.

Another cool spot here is the sculpture garden. It's filled with all kinds of cool roadside signs!

I'm so glad we stumbled upon this place because it is definitely one of the more unique and wacky spots I've had the pleasure of visiting. It's definitely worth spending a couple hours here if you're visiting Dayton!

There's still a lot more we could have seen in Dayton like several antique shops and the local coffee shop in town (unfortunately they were closed when we were there), so we'll just have to make another stop through soon!

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