Friday, May 15, 2009

York Institute, a legacy in distress

Remediation and Stabilization is almost complete on YAI (left), thanks to donors who are helping the SYPF save the historic building. The building (photographed in 2007, below) was slated for demolition by the State of Tennessee.

Alvin York, when asked “How do you want to be remembered?” always replied, “For improving education in Tennessee.”

Volunteers and donors helped Sgt. York build York Institute; help sought today for saving the structure
The Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation is asking you to help save the original school building erected though the efforts of one of America’s most decorated heroes.
In the 1920s Sgt. Alvin C. York raised money to build a school for those children and adults of the Cumberland Plateau who desired to earn a formal education. On two separate occasions Sgt. York mortgaged his own home and farm to ensure the school’s survival.
Through a prolonged, hard fought battle, perhaps more difficult that the World War I service that earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor and similar honors from around the world, York was able open and sustain the school that today bears his name.
Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, York Institute was erected with funds raised by York’s speaking tours across the country. Standing on a foundation York himself helped to dig, the two-story brick structure was abandoned for a more modern adjacent facility in 1979.
The original building, which should be a monument to that achievement, has in recent years become a derelict shell of what it should be, falling into such disrepair that the State of Tennessee announced that the building was slated for demolition.
After a 364-day struggle and a series of hearings at the State Capitol and in Jamestown, the forces for restoration prevailed late in 2008, when the state agreed to deed the property to the 501c3 Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation (SYPF) and allow it to use the money designated for demolition to stabilize the structure.
Phase I of this $1 million remediation and stabilization project has been completed. The State of Tennessee will match dollar-for-dollar all money raised by the SYPF up to $500,000. With this funding Phase II can begin, which will sufficiently secure the structure while a major fundraising campaign is undertaken to rehabilitate the school beginning in 2010.
Ultimately, the building will allow York Institute to expand, quite possibly offering a venue to teach new technologies that Sgt. York could never have imagined but, with his educational vision, would most certainly have approved.
The York Institute: the true legacy of Sgt. York

by Michael E. Birdwell, PhD, Associate Professor of History at Tennessee Technological University and Archivist of Alvin C. York’s papers
Known as the greatest hero of World War I, Alvin C. York avoided profiting from his war record, choosing, instead to give something back to his nation and his home state.
On 8 October 1918 Corporal Alvin C. York and 16 other men under the command of Sergeants Harry Parsons and Bernard Early were dispatched to capture the Decauville railroad near Chatel-Chehery in the Meuse-Argonne. After a brief firefight [nine Americans died in the melee] the confused Germans surrendered to what they believed to be a superior force. In all 132 Germans were captured and delivered to U.S. Army headquarters by the seven survivors led by Corporal York. The army singled out York
as the hero of World War I and presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Upon his return to the United States, York found himself being wooed by Hollywood, Broadway and various sponsors who clamored for his endorsement. York turned his back on quick and certain fortune in 1919 and went home to Tennessee to resume private life and pursue a dream that consumed the rest of his life.
The story of York Institute is one filled with triumph and tragedy, and deserves greater circulation. When Alvin York responded to his draft notice, he typified the underprivileged, undereducated conscript who traveled to France to "keep the world safe for democracy."
Possessing what he called a third grade education, a subscription school education which amounted to only nine months’ total schooling over three years, York discovered a larger world beyond his ken in the army. Before leaving for Camp Gordon, Ga., and beyond, York’s world consisted of the area w
ithin a one-hundred mile radius of his home (the furthest he had been from home, had been Albany, Ky.,to the north, Celina to the west, Jamestown to the south, and Harriman to the east, where he boarded the train bound for Atlanta, and basic training).
The war introduced him to a progressive, mechanized, industrial world and prolonged exposure to it made him realize the important contributions education could make for his friends and relatives at home. Literally a stranger in a strange land, York recognized that he was ill‑equipped to fully understand or appreciate his foreign surroundings. Initially, he immersed himself in th
e Bible, hoping that his simple religious faith would see him through, but by the war’s end he longed for something more than just his faith. Largely unknown to most Americans, and, sadly, many Tennesseans, was the fact that York returned to America with a single vision.
He wanted to provide a practical educational opportunity for the mountain children of Tennessee. Understanding that to prosper in the modern world, people needed an education, York sought to drag Fentress County into the 20th century. Thousands of like-minded veterans returned from France with similar sentiments and, as a result, high school and college enrollments shot up immediately after the war.
The very thought of this barely literate veteran launching a campaign for education was fraught with difficulty, for it struck most of Fentress county’s political and social leaders as ludicrous that York could build and administer a school. Possessing no background in education or administration, his inte
ntions, though noble, struck them as absurd because his ability to evaluate instructors, curricula, textbooks, and administration was nearly non‑existent. While regarded as a hero across America, at home York was seen as a threat to the county’s Republican Party political structure.
Celebrity made it possible for the Sergeant to express his desire for education to the world at large but gave him little clout when dealing with the old guard Fentress County elite. As early as 1920 York formed a non-profit organization, the York Foundation, and embarked on a series of speaking tours on its behalf. Just as he had no experience as an educator or administrator, he had no background as a public speaker or in fund-raising.
Though both initially hampered his progress, York learned how to be effective as a speaker and an educator. Undaunted, he intended to provide the boys and girls of his native region with
"liberating influences and educational advantages which were denied me."
His vision was not limited to the education of children from the remote Cumberland Plateau region; he wanted to include interested adults as well. He set a tremendous example, for he reminded them when he spoke, of his own former limitations, but that by reading, thinking, and asking questions, he broadened his own understanding of the world. He hired a private tutor, Arthur S. Bushing, who played a crucial role in improving York’s education.
A pamphlet issued in 1926 stated, ". . .it will be the aim of the Institute to afford an opportunity for mature men and women to get an education, regardless of how backward they may be, and also to send out only such graduates as are prepared to succeed in the work they have chosen to do."
York realized that one is never too old to learn something new, and led by example. As genuine as York’s mission was to reporters of the New York Times and other media organs, in Tennessee he encountered raised eyebrows, guffaws, and outright hostility. Parents eking out a living in rural are
as needed their children to work on the farms since few families could afford to hire labor.
They depended on their children to help plant crops, milk cows, slop hogs, and carry out all the other daily chores that made farm life. York’s proposal for a mandatory eight‑month school term angered a host of local farmers who perceived education as frivolous, impractical, and a waste of hard-earned money.
In 1925 the York Foundation drafted plans and proposed a site for the school one mile north of Jamestown near the newly constructed Highway 127. Taking the $12,000 he had raised on speaking tours, York purchased 400 acres, including the Poor House. (It housed students and classes while the new building was being constructed.)
York called a national press conference and held a ground breaking ceremony on May 8, 1926, at the Poor House site before a crowd of 2,000, though Governor Austin Peay was conspi
cuous in his absence. The first students enrolled at York Institute began taking classes in the fall of 1925.
On Sunday, Jan. 16, 1927, the Nashville Banner announced the launching of a $100,000 fund-raising effort to insure York Institute’s completion. Supported by the recently organized American Legion, each post promised that it would deliver one dollar per member. University of Tennessee president H.A. Morgan pledged his unwavering support as well.
Pursuing his goal of improving the education of Tennessee’s youth never proved easy.
York’s enemies launched a counter-attack to his ground breaking event, and were intent on humiliating him. They concluded that York, by holding classes in the old Poor House, was guilty of trespassing. Classes continued and construction on the new school neared completion. As construction continued, the state legislature passed the mandatory education bill of 1925, further insuring the success of York’s school. That legislation insulted many people in the county, for it stipulated that in order to teach in Tennessee
public schools, teachers had to be certified and have degrees from one of the state’s normal schools.
No one in Fentress County was qualified under the new rules, and the first teachers employed at York Institute came from outside the region, with degrees from Peabody Normal College in Nashville. Viewed with suspicion and outsiders, their presence added to the growing hostility against York and his dream for better and mandatory education of Tennessee children.
Attorney L.A. Ligon investigated classes being taught at the Poor House for the county, deeming York’s action as "unwarranted, unauthorized and illegal." The County Board of Education, served York notice to vacate the premises by July 11, 1927, or be forcibly evicted. At 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 9, 1927, York received the summons. York referred the matter to his attorney, focused his attention upon raising money, rallied supporters to his side, and hit the road again. For the first time in his public speaking career, York discussed his war record to insure that he would play to packed houses and garner much needed funds to continue his fight.
Encountering foreigners and people of other faiths for the first time in the
military, York told audiences that his time in the service opened his eyes to an entirely new and exciting world. As he sailed to Europe it occurred to him that he was beginning to understand fellow soldiers who were Greek, Italians and Jews, who were “smart soldiers and pretty good pals too."
As he concluded, York said he survived war and achieved fame because he had been chosen to perform a specific mission: When I went out into that big outside world I realized how uneducated I was and what a terrible handicap it was. I was called to lead my people toward a sensible modern education. For years I have been planning and fighting to build the school. And it has been a terrible fight. A much more terrible fight than the one that I fought in the war. And so I head into the frontline and fight another fight. And I can’t use the old rifle or Colt automatic this time. And it has been a long hard fight.

York, by this time, was an accomplished, entertaining speaker, and by finally giving the public what it wanted--exciting war stories--he played to packed houses everywhere. Though he enticed the crowds with the recreation of his role in the battle on Oct. 8, 1918, he always ended with a plea for support of York Institute. Unfortunately, the speaking tour proved lucrative and costly at the same time. Though pledges came in
supporting the mission, York’s political capital at home continued to plummet. Local papers blistered York while praising his enemies. Articles argued that the children of Fentress County would be endangered by York’s personal ambitions.
York continued speaking engagements throughout 1927 and 1928. New Englanders provided the majority of the financial commitment as well as the greatest interest in his endeavor. On Armistice Day he spoke to a packed audience at Carnegie Hall in New York about the importance of his work and the benighted souls who stood in his way back home, comparing the Fentress county elite to a pair of mules working against each other. His appeal to outsiders, especially northerners, further alienated York’s support at home.
After a protracted series of legal challenges, York opened the new school in the fall of 1929.
The school’s opening coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and in 1931 the state ended all appropriations for bus transportation, effectively crippling the struggling Institute. The very nature of the school - a mountain school where children could come for a free education - required buses. Yo
rk went before the County Court and asked for help. The Court refused.
On two occasions, first in 1931 and then later in 1935, York secured a mortgage on his farm from his political enemy and banker, W. L. Wright, to hire drivers, buy buses and even pay teachers’ salaries. This was true heroism, endangering the fate of his family to ensure that the school remain in operation. As the Depression worsened Wright badgered York, ultimately declaring him delinquent in his business transactions, and moved to foreclose on his farm. Had it not been for his longtime friend and neighbor, Susie Williams, York would have lost his farm, for she twice loaned him the money necessary to pay off his note.
Far from crediting York for his selfless efforts, the state never reimbursed York for his altruism. Rather, he was criticized for his behavior which led to a fact‑finding investigation in 1933 that resulted in York’s eventual removal from the school in 1937. The investigating committee recognized that York was the driving force behind the school and feared its demise if he were removed from the picture. They also ackno
wledged that if the school were turned over to Fentress County, the situation would be worse. As a result the state of Tennessee assumed control of the school and assumed operation of York Institute. They removed York as the school’s administrator, but named him "president emeritus," because he did not have a college degree. The title which recognized him as the school’s founder but stripped him of any power.
In spite of his loss of position, York continued to promote York Institute, raising private donations for expansion of the school facilities and, when possible, contributing his own money. Legislation forced the state to have a vested interest in its success and York’s dream of free education for Tennessee’s mountain children at last became a reality. He presided over every graduation ceremony until his stroke in 1948 but continued to make regular visits to the school up into the late 1950s, until he grew too frail.
York fought valiantly in a war waged not on distant battlefields in France, but on his own doorstep. Because his tenure in the military made him painfully aware of his intellectual limitations, York dedicated the remainder of his life to the improvement of education — his own and his region’s.
York Agricultural and Industrial Institute, north of Jamestown, stands as a monument to his embattled dream. Yet the condition of the building that he helped build, digging its foundation by hand, and overseeing every aspect of its construction, is now in danger of demolition. Though it should be a lasting tribute to his hard work and dedication to assist the citizens of the state he loved, it is now on the brink of collapse. York lost many battles over the course of the war to build York Institute and make it viable.
Though he lost control of the school in 1937, he continued to be its biggest booster, and dedicated his life to its success. Because of his vision, thousands of students have benefited from his largess. Eyes have been opened and imaginations given flight by his dream made reality. Thousands of York Institute graduates went on to become leaders of industry, bankers, lawyers and educators.
In April 2009 the Tennessee Historical Commission received word from Washington, D.C. announcing that the building’s status on the National Register of Historic Places had been upgraded. Its previous designation recognized the structure for its importance locally. The new status declares that the building is significant nationally.
To help or donate:

Ornament depicts, supports
York Agricultural Institute’s historic building
The historic York Agricultural Institute building in Jamestown, Tenn., is depicted in a limited-edition pewter ornament created exclusively for sale by the Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation.
The ornaments will be available as long as supplies last at the York General Store in Pall Mall, at Sgt. York Day on Oct. 17, online at, from foundation board members and at various businesses in Jamestown, according to Darlene Davis, chairman of SYPF’s fundraising committee.
“We hope the ornament will spark memories in former students who have a soft spot in their hearts for the old school,” Davis said.
Davis said that all proceeds from sale of the $15 work of art go directly into the YAI restoration. These funds will help the Foundation in meeting its goals to match a $500,000 dollar-for-dollar grant from the State of Ten
nessee earmarked
exclusively for remediation and stabilization of the 1920s era building.
“This portion of construction is near completion,” Davis explained,
adding that the SYPF is continuing aggressively to raise funding. “We do not just want to preserve the building; we want to work with York
Institute to revitalize it into a viable space for expansion of the York Institute complex.”
To create the ornament Davis tapped the talents of artist Ben Cordsen, owner of Colorado-based Cordsen Design Studio, who created a similar ornament depicting the clock tower of the Fentress County Courthouse.
“Alvin York's lasting legacy for
Tennessee was previously unknown to me,” Cordsen said. “Through the research of s
ubjects for sculpture I have gained a better understanding of people, events and circumstances beyond my own experience. Sgt York was certainly a figure to emulate.”
Cordsen said that several photographs of the present building as well as older ones showing the original configuration and layout were sent to him by Davis.
“The best loved and remembered scene was the main building with both wings viewed through the stand of trees behind the York Institute letters on the low berm towards to the road,” Cordsen observed from his research, and Davis agreed.
“After a lengthy discussion with Ben and other board members of the Foundation about whether to include the trees,
it was decided to do so,” Davis said. “For the hundreds of students that attended school in the old building and the community, this has consistently been the view from the road of the letters, trees and building.”
With the design approved, Cordsen created the model, hand carved in sculpting wax.
“Once I was satisfied with the look, a mold was created from casting rubber and the first pewter ornaments were poured from this mold,” Cordsen said. “Production in quantity was done in a second mold using spin cast techniques for high detail.”
Cordsen has been a full-time sculptor since the early 1970s and has cast pewter in his own foundry more than 25 years.
“The metal I used for the keepsake ornament is fine, lead free pewter that is easy to work, very durable and gives a soft antique finish when completed,” Cordsen said. “The cas
ting temperature is 600°.”
Each ornament is hand finished in the Cordsen family studio, buffed and lacquer sealed with a hanging ribbon for display. In addition, the York Institute keepsake has been designed to stand on a shelf or tabletop without the ribbon.
“I hope the ornament depicting the York Institute will be a successful fund raiser
bringing many people together in remembering the Institute and the place it has had in the community,” the artist said. “I am excited to provide the keepsake ornament for the York Institute and do my small part helping raise funds for the restoration and rededication of the York Institute building.”
For more information about the Foundation’s efforts or to purchase the ornament online visit or call 1-888-WW1-Hero.

York General Store, Pall Mall, Tenn.
Begin your visit with Sgt. York here!

Sandwiches, snacks and drinks, souvenirs, introductory movie, homemade milkshakes, handmade quilts, Sgt. York books, prints and more. All proceeds from the store support the Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation's educational efforts.

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Preserving the legacy of Sgt. York

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The Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation is a non-profit corporation funded by voluntary contributions. It serves to continue historical research; preserve the Sgt. York Homeplace, farm and artifacts; restore York Institute and improve education.

Please refer others to the SYPF blog.