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A sergeant’s story: Tennessee preserves memory of humble hero Alvin York

Alvin York’s gristmill is part of the Alvin C. York State Historic Park and is on the Wolf River. The mill adjoins a tree-shaded, grassy area with picnic tables and playground equipment.
Alvin York’s gristmill is part of the Alvin C. York State Historic Park and is on the Wolf River. The mill adjoins a tree-shaded, grassy area with picnic tables and playground equipment. Alvin C. York State Historic Park

Almost 97 years ago, Sgt. Alvin York crawled through the fog from a muddy World War I foxhole in France to take out two enemy machine gunners who threatened to slaughter his fellow American soldiers, and singly killed 25 Germans and helped capture 132 more.

He was America’s most decorated hero of World War I. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the French Legion of Honor and and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for heroic actions against the German offensive outside the French village of Chatel-Cheheny on Oct. 8, 1918.

When the gangly, humble York returned to America from the “war to end all wars,” he had a chest full of medals. The press couldn’t get enough of him. He was lavished with ticker-tape parades, keys to cities, hugs and pats on the back from generals, governors, senators and even the secretary to President Woodrow Wilson

Here’s the catch: York, a soft-spoken hillbilly sharpshooter from Fentress County, Tenn., tried – for religious reasons – to avoid being drafted into the Army. York was denied his petition to the draft board and, after much prayer, went off to war.

The rest is history, and it lives on at his home just outside of Pall Mall, Tenn., not far from the Kentucky state line and about six hours northwest of Charlotte.

But when he returned to Fentress County, York didn’t much want to talk about killing, fighting or the ravaging war. By the time it ended in late 1918, World War I had claimed almost 10 million lives. Instead, according to his daughter-in-law, Margaret York, he preferred to focus on his family, faith, local community and schools.

Today, Margaret York, wife of the late Thomas Jefferson York, is a hostess, greeter and tour guide at Alvin York’s Pall Mall residence, part of Alvin C. York State Historic Park. The two-story white frame house in the Wolf River Valley is where York (1887-1964) and his beloved wife, Gracie, lived out their final years. Wander through this five-bedroom house, free and open to the public seven days a week, and get a sense of all the love, laughter and music that filled these rooms. See Alvin and Gracie York’s furniture, including a grandfather clock, piano, pictures, dishes, a replica of the 1903 Springfield rifle he used in the war – even the hospital bed Alvin spent so much time in after he suffered a stroke in 1954.

Not far from the house, and also worth visiting, is the Alvin C. York and Sons General Merchandise Store. Refurbished in 2000, the building is a throwback to the grocery store Alvin operated with his sons after he came home from the war.

The building is now leased from the Tennessee state park system. It features a free, 10-minute video documentary on Alvin York narrated by Walter Cronkite and a gift shop full of souvenirs, coffee mugs, pictures, shirts, quilts and other mementos of Fentress County’s most famous war hero. Plus, the store is one of the very few places that sell the 1941 Oscar-winning movie, “Sergeant York,” (starring Gary Cooper), according to the visitor center’s Ginger Pearson.

“A lot here is about Alvin York the man instead of the hero,” Pearson said. She believes fervently that Alvin York, one of 11 children born to Mary and William York, should never be forgotten.

“He’s someone that the kids can admire and aspire to be like,” she said. “He always thought of himself as a rich man, and it wasn’t wealth. It was all his friends and the people he was able to help in this area.

“He’s left a legacy on all of us here and we’re trying to keep it alive for him.”

Indeed, York made a huge impact on his community when he returned from the war in Europe. For example, he served as president of the York Institute, a school he founded in nearby Jamestown, Tenn., and he worked tirelessly to raise money for education through his nonprofit York Foundation. On many occasions he made speeches, for no fee, to benefit worthy civic causes.

After visiting Alvin York’s store and residence, stop by his gristmill. It’s also part of the Alvin C. York State Historic Park and is on the Wolf River. The mill adjoins a tree-shaded, grassy area with picnic tables and playground equipment. A sandy beach is a good launching point for waders or swimmers.

Alvin Cullum York’s final resting place is in the Wolf River Cemetery, just off Rotten Fork Road and near the state park that bears his name. Alvin’s wife, Gracie Loretta Williams York, is buried next to him. (Two of Alvin’s sons, ages 92 and 85, and a daughter, 82, survive him.)

An American flag flaps gently over the couple’s graves, and here, too, is a giant white cross and angel with folded hands. Picture boards document Alvin York’s life and accomplishments. It is a quiet, peaceful, beautiful place, near the shade of a giant tulip poplar tree – aptly placed for one of America’s most famous soldiers.

Larry Timbs, a Vietnam-era veteran, is a retired journalism professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill.

Atten-shun!

It’s about a five-hour drive (almost all of it interstate) from Charlotte to Pall Mall, Tenn. At the Alvin C. York State Historic Park (www.tnstateparks.com/parks/about/sgt-alvin-c-york) are Sgt. York’s gristmill, his two-story house and general store and the cemetery where he and some of his family members are buried. Picture boards illustrate key aspects of York’s life (his parents and his birth, his heroism in the war, his business and farming pursuits, his marriage, the civic causes he supported and his death).

When you reach Crossville, Tenn., on I-40 just west of Knoxville, you’re 47 miles from the state park. From I-40 at Crossville, take U.S. 127 North to the state park. It’s an easy, scenic drive on the road that, before World War I, was built by a road crew that included Alvin York. Today, the highway is named in his honor.

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