State park preserves memory of famous Tennessean
Published 9:06 am Monday, June 15, 2015
By Larry Timbs Jr.
Special to the Elizabethton Star
It’s been almost 97 years since Sergeant Alvin C. York, America’s most decorated hero of World War I, crawled through the fog from a muddy foxhole in France, helped take out two enemy machine gunners who threatened to slaughter all his fellow American soldiers, singly killed 25 Germans and helped capture 132 others.
But the legacy of Sergeant York, a soft-spoken hillbilly sharpshooter from Fentress County, Tenn., who tried to avoid (for religious reasons) being drafted into the Army, lives on at his home just outside of Pall (rhymes with pal) Mall, Tenn., not far from the Kentucky state line and about 100 miles northwest of Knoxville.
York was denied his petition to the draft board and, after much prayer, went off to war.
The rest, as they say, is history.
He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the French Legion d’nonneur and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, for his heroic actions against the erman 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 also 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 (Wilson was in Paris at the time.)
But when he returned to Fentress County, Alvin didn’t much want to talk about killing, fighting or the ravaging war that by the time it ended in late 1918 had claimed almost 10 million lives; instead, according to his daughter-in-law, Margaret York, he preferred to focus on his family, faith, his local community and schools.
Today, Margaret York, wife of the late Thomas Jefferson York (who died in 1972), is a hostess, greeter and tour guide at Alvin York’s Pall Mall, Tenn., residence.
The two-story white frame house in the Wolf River Valley is where Alvin (who died in 1964) and his beloved wife Gracie (deceased since 1984) 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, too, 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 (Phone 931-879-3657). Refurbished in 2000, the building is a throwback to the original 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, a gift shop chock 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 Academy Award winning movie “Sergeant York,” (starring Gary Cooper), according to sales clerk 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,” she added.
Indeed, Alvin York the man, not just the soldier, made a huge impact on his home 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, too, he made speeches, for no money, to benefit worthy civic causes.
After visiting Alvin York’s store and home residence, stop by his gristmill. It’s also part of the Alvin C. York State Historic Park and is on the Wolf River. The gristmill 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 brothers, ages 91 and 84, and a sister, 81, still 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 suited for one of America’s most famous soldiers. If you’re going…
It’s about a three and one-half drive (almost all of it interstate) from Elizabethton to Pall Mall, Tenn., site of the Alvin C. York State Historic Park. At the park 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 to his wife Gracie, 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. Highway 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.
Reach the state park at: 931-879-6456. The Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation, dedicated to preserving, showing and interpreting the personal property of York and his family, can be reached at: 931-879-3657.
Larry Timbs Jr., a Vietnam-era veteran, is a retired journalism professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. Currently residing in Johnson City with his wife Patsy and his two dogs, he is also a graduate of Elizabethton High School and son of the late Lawrence and Dixie Nadine Jenkins Timbs of the Valley Forge community of Carter County.