Alvin York is one of Tennessee’s great heroes. The best place to learn about him is where he lived most of his life — in Fentress County, at present-day site of the Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park.
York was born poor, one of eleven children raised in a two-room log cabin. When he was first drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, his first reaction was to say he was opposed to the idea of killing others. But he did go. The next year, in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, York and others killed an estimated 25 Germans and captured 132 prisoners.
We should point out here that although many accounts talk about what York did “single handedly,” there were many others involved in this event. Since battlefields are bloody, confusing places, it is impossible to know exactly how many people York killed. York, meanwhile, was reluctant to talk about what he did in battle, leaving that to others.
York received the Medal of Honor, which is the highest U.S. military decoration. Five other Tennesseans also won this medal during World War I — click here to read a column about them. But York received far more publicity than the other five because the Saturday Evening Post published a story about his exploits.
When York came home from the war, parades were held in his honor all over the country. Because he was so famous, York was frequently offered large amounts of money to endorse products. However he refused to accept money for speaking about the war or writing about it, because he thought it was wrong to profit from serving his country. “This uniform ain’t for sale,” he told someone once.
Back in Tennessee, York tried to return to a normal life. But people everywhere were proud of him and wanted to do things for him. The state gave York some land in Pall Mall, on which the Nashville Rotary Club built him a home in which to live.
When you get to Alvin York Historic State Park, start at the visitor center, where there are displays about York and a short movie that you can watch about him. The visitor center looks like a store is because that’s exactly what it used to be — a general store run by the York family.
When you get to the York home, you’ll be greeted by a tour guide. The first room you’ll see is a porch that is full of photographs and displays about York, his life, and his career. Take your time. This is a good place to learn about his early life, the war in which he fought, and the many honors that were given him when he came home.
Then you’ll move into the other rooms, where you’ll see the house exactly the way it was when York lived there from 1920 until his death in 1964.
After you’ve seen the house, venture across the street to the grist mill. This mill, on the Wolf River, is one of the prettiest sights in Tennessee. It was originally built in 1836. York purchased it in 1943 and operated it for eight years, and during that time he produced a product that was sold under the name York Corn Meal.
Take the time to explore the mill, ideally with someone who knows about the process of grinding corn into corn meal. If you don’t have a tour guide, the state park has created a new video which you can see just outside the mill which explains it pretty well.
One of the things we associate with World War I was “trench warfare” — which was when entire armies dug and lived in trenches that faced each other and which stretched for hundreds of miles across France and Belgium.
Today it is impossible for us to understand how awful it would have been to live and die in these trenches during the war. However, to help us visualize the trenches and to make the subject easier to teach, the staff at York Historic Park has created a replica trench behind the York house. We strongly recommend that you explore it.
One of the things that being in the trenches gives you is a sense of how crowded that they would have been. There is even a nook inside the trench that shows where bunk beds might have been located. But we know from first-person accounts that World War I soldiers usually didn’t sleep in beds; they slept on the ground, or on the side of the trench, or wherever they could.
Finally, we recommend that you take a short drive or hike to the cemetery in which York and all other members of his family were buried.
For more on the York Historic Park, click here.