In a small cemetery in Tennessee’s Wolf River Valley, not far from his birthplace, is the grave of Sgt. Alvin York.
Occasionally, a visitor will ask why he wasn’t laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, among the nation’s most honored veterans. Certainly he could have been. For his actions in combat, York received the Medal of Honor and numerous other awards, and was hailed by Gen. John Pershing as “the greatest civilian soldier” of the Great War.
But the red-haired, 6-foot sharpshooter, who spent his entire life in this valley but for 18 months in uniform, was adamant he be buried among his people. “He said, ‘When the rapture happens, I want to wake up and see the hills of Tennessee,’” says Deborah York, his great-granddaughter and director of the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation.
Up to his death in 1964, York was tight-lipped about his battlefield exploits. He preferred to talk about the interest that gripped him upon his return from Europe: education. There was a big world outside Fentress County, and mountain boys and girls deserved opportunities for learning he never had. York, a member of The American Legion’s founding generation, wanted to give them those opportunities.
In these parts, York’s greatest legacy isn’t his war record, but what he did after the war: raising money to build a school that still operates today, digging the foundation himself, and mortgaging his farm twice to buy buses, hire drivers and even pay teachers’ salaries. If he used his celebrity, it was to help bring improved education, employment and roads to the Upper Cumberland.
“He could have received his medals, come home and lived out his life in peace,” says Joseph Gamble, a seasonal interpretive ranger at Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park in Pall Mall. “He chose of his own will and character to try to make better the lives of everyone around him. None of us are perfect, but he’s about as close as they come.”
WINDOW TO THE WAR Until recently, the park focused on the York Americans knew less well – the one who wed Gracie Williams and raised seven children with her, battled local authorities to open the York Institute, and ran a general store and grist mill. Visitors to the area toured the family home, talked with relatives, and saw other sites connected to York’s post-war life.
“I referred to it as Paul Harvey’s ‘The Rest of the Story,’” says Travis Stover, park manager. “If you didn’t come in with some knowledge about what Alvin did during the war, you weren’t likely to leave with that. You were directly interacting with family members who were recalling their experiences while Alvin was here, but not hearing what happened in France.”
With the centennial of U.S. entry into World War I underway, that’s become necessary. Younger generations are losing touch with the war and those who fought it – including Alvin York, the most celebrated American soldier of his time. He was once a household name, thanks in part to the 1941 film “Sergeant York.” Today, many have never heard who he was and what he did in the Argonne.
They don’t know how on Oct. 8, 1918, York and 16 other soldiers made their way behind enemy lines to silence German machine guns holding up their advance to capture a rail line north of Châtel-Chéhéry. How they took a few prisoners before German gunners above them opened fire, killing six – including York’s best friend, Cpl. Murray Savage – and wounding three. How York picked off the Germans one by one, then fought off a bayonet charge by drawing his pistol and dropping six others. How a German officer finally heeded York’s calls to surrender, and he and his surviving comrades marched 132 prisoners to battalion headquarters.
The legend that York accomplished all this singlehandedly – killing more than 20 Germans, wiping out 35 machine gun nests – lives on, but he always insisted he didn’t act alone. “I was one of the 17 who did the job,” he said later. “Any one of the other boys could have done the same thing I did if fate had put them in my place.”
For the York State Historic Park, now is the time to tell the whole story of its namesake’s life, not least of which are the 15 minutes that made him famous.
The episode also makes a great entry point to the Great War itself. That’s the idea of the trench behind the York home, dug last year to give visitors a physical context for what America’s doughboys were experiencing 100 years ago.
“We saw the advent of the centennial as an opportunity to really up our game,” says Jeff Wells, director of interpretive programming and education for Tennessee State Parks. “We took the Veterans Day event put on by our friends in the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation and expanded it into a three-day program of living history.”
Hundreds showed up to watch re-enactments and interact with volunteers portraying American, French, British, Australian and German troops, as World War I replica aircraft flew overhead. The weekend also included a screening of “Sergeant York” in his barn, a period church service, and a football game between the Army and Marines playing by 1910 rules.
“It was fun,” says Gamble, looking every bit a doughboy in olive drab coat and helmet. “We had Allied fellows filling the trench and the dugout with displays. Visitors could wander through and see how men lived. We were short on Germans, so I donned the German gray and was talking to folks about the dark side, as it were.”
Stover says the park’s goal is to give people an experience, with re-enactments and encampments throughout the year. “It’s tangible,” he says. “You can put your hands on it. You can put your feet on it. With iPads and cellphones and everything else, it’s hard to get kids to look up. But they come alive when they see something like this.”
What would York, who wanted to forget the war, think about a trench in his backyard? Hard to say. Having nearly lost his farm to provide education for others, he might be amused that the property itself now does its own share of educating.
DIVINE PROTECTION Across the road from the cemetery is Wolf River Methodist Church. Near the end of 1914, a revival in this building led to York’s religious conversion. It was a complete 180 for the rebellious blacksmith’s son – no more cussin’, no more drinkin’, no more fightin’. One of his earliest biographers, Tom Skeyhill, wrote that York went from being a “hell buster” to a “heaven raiser.” Soon he was teaching Sunday school and known as the “singing elder.”
Then a draft notice arrived. Encouraged by his pastor, York initially claimed conscientious objector status (Don’t want to fight, he wrote on the card). But the local draft board denied his appeal, stating that the Church of Christ in Christian Union was not a well-recognized sect – and in any case, nothing prohibited its members from serving.
At Camp Gordon, Ga., York’s convictions boiled over to the point he told his company commander, Capt. E.C.B. Danforth, that if he was forced to kill a man, he’d hold him responsible before God at the final judgment. Danforth brought in the commander of the 328th Battalion, Maj. G. Edward Buxton, and the three men began an intense back-and-forth on what the Bible says about violence and war.
Moved by York’s sincerity, Buxton gave the soldier a few days’ leave to think matters over. York, meanwhile, was impressed by Buxton’s knowledge of Scripture. Back in Pall Mall, he spent a day and a night at the Yellow Doors – a sandstone formation overlooking the valley – praying about what to do.
From York’s grave, Deborah points out the rocky outcropping. “It was up there that he came to believe God would protect him, and that to save lives he may have to take some lives,” she says.
Still, York hated the war, and when he returned home he spurned offers for product endorsements and public appearances. “This uniform ain’t for sale,” he quipped. He married and settled down on a 400-acre farm given to him by the Nashville Rotary Club – the one gift he accepted.
Driving north on Highway 127 into Pall Mall, tourists will see the park’s welcome center on their left – a reproduction of the grocery store York ran with his sons. Inside they can watch a Walter Cronkite-narrated introduction to York’s life, read a series of interpretive panels and browse a gift shop. Displays include a Brodie helmet, a German bayonet, an M1903 Springfield rifle, York’s visor cap and a military map recently found in York’s belongings.
“It was definitely carried in theater, based on wear and tear,” Gamble says of the map. “If it was Alvin’s, I can’t prove that. But at least postwar it was in his possession.”
Down the road and to the right is the York home, a two-story white frame that had electrical wiring installed before power had even come to the area. In 1922, when the Yorks moved in, the house was a modern marvel – “a beacon of light, truly a mansion here in the valley,” says Tanner Wells, another of the park’s interpretive rangers.
On occasion, York’s three living children – George Edward Buxton York, 93, Betsy Ross Lowrey, 83, and Andrew Jackson York, 86 – return to share memories of growing up there.
“Anybody was welcome in our house,” Betsy says. “If they said they were passing by and had always heard of Sgt. York, and would it be possible to come in and meet him, that was fine.”
For decades, Andrew was a park ranger and led tours of the house after it opened to the public in 1995. He retired a couple of years ago, but still enjoys telling stories of the good old days when it was full – when family, friends, neighbors and even strangers gathered around the table for Miss Gracie’s meals, and for prayer.
He didn’t know his father was a war hero until he read his diary. “I was probably 12 years old,” he says. “As far as him talking about what happened over there, ain’t no way you’d pull it out of him.”
When giving tours, Andrew would reminisce about his frequent travels with York to visit Army training camps and promote bond sales during World War II. Inevitably, someone would ask if he could shoot as good as his daddy did. “I always said, ‘I can shoot as good as anybody. But I can’t hit as good.’”
The home looks much as it did when Alvin and Gracie York lived there – their wedding photo over the piano, his typewriter in the study, the wash closet where the couple kissed goodbye before he left on trips. Just off the living room is a circular push-button bed invented by Homer Stryker, a doctor and Michigan Legionnaire. It was given to York by the Legion in 1960, so he could have some movement despite semi-paralysis and near blindness.
One of the newer items on display is a Bible carried by York throughout World War I. During a visit to Cheboygan, Mich., in 1930, he gave it to 12-year-old David Lees, the son of a Methodist minister. Lees went on to serve as a navigational officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, and carried York’s Bible with him until his discharge in 1945.
Like York, Lees survived a cataclysmic world war, coming home physically unscathed.
BUILT TO LAST York’s home honors his life, but two other structures are monuments to his determination: a wood-and-stone Bible school not far from the farm, and the original York Institute building in Jamestown. Both sit empty, but if the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation has its way they won’t be much longer.
Throughout the 1920s, York traveled extensively to raise funds for education, with crowds everywhere responding to his appeals for help. “In this great nation of ours, we have numerous districts in the rural sections that have been forgotten,” York told Kansas Legionnaires at their department convention at Fort Scott in 1926. “Many are up there who can’t sign their own names. I am giving my life and trying to raise money to establish a school there.”
A charter member of The American Legion – he attended an organizational meeting in Paris in 1919, and helped found Mark Twain Post 137 in Jamestown – York had the full support of the Tennessee Legion. It passed a resolution recommending posts contribute funds to “establish this much needed institution.”
When the York Institute opened in 1929, York told members of Capt. Belvidere Brooks Post 450 in New York that the fight to finance and build it was “heaps harder than the little shootin’ in the Argonne.”
The school has thrived, but it moved into a new home in the 1980s. Despite the pleas of the York family and concerned citizens, the original two-story brick building was left to deteriorate. The Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation saved it from demolition in 2008, raised more than $2 million to stabilize the structure and now owns it outright.
“We’re about to launch a capital campaign to fully restore the building,” Deborah says. “It’s in incredibly good shape for sitting vacant for so long. We can make it into anything we want.”
Right now she’s developing an idea to turn the old school into the Sgt. York Center for Peace and Valor, a place to host conferences, lectures and gatherings related to those central themes of York’s life.
At the same time, the foundation is working with local legislators and Tennessee State Parks to restore another former York school building – the interdenominational York Bible Institute, constructed in 1942 with his share of proceeds from the “Sergeant York” film. It was open only a year before the war effort siphoned off many potential students.
Current plans call for transforming the building into a World War I museum, Deborah says. And because Pall Mall and Châtel-Chéhéry are sister cities, the design includes an outdoor café with the U.S. and French flags flying side by side.
“There is no World War I museum in the state of Tennessee,” Deborah says. “What better building than one Sgt. York built?”
Both restoration projects are ambitious, but she’s confident they can be completed during the Great War’s centennial. If anything, her famous ancestor tips the scales in her favor.
“That York stubbornness,” she says, laughing. “I’m hoping I have a little dose of it.”
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.