When Sergeant Alvin C. York returned to the United States in 1919 as the best-known hero of the World War, he devoted his attention to improving education in rural Tennessee. York’s tenure in the military and service overseas made him painfully aware of his own educational shortcomings and convinced him that an adequate education was the key to advancement. The initial name for the school, the York Industrial Institute (later changed to the York Agricultural and Industrial Institute), reflected York’s belief that the future lay in industry. Ironically, York’s Jamestown school would train students for a technological future and ensure that many children would leave the region for larger urban areas.
In 1925 the Tennessee General Assembly appropriated fifty thousand dollars toward the school’s construction. York, a Democrat, battled the local Republican county executives over the school’s location. In 1927 local officials threatened eviction from the site, and York appealed directly to the state legislature and national media for support. As a result, the 1925 legislation was amended to give the state Department of Education oversight of York Institute.
The school opened in 1929, but even with state backing York’s problems continued. Fentress County officials refused to support the school. In order to pay teachers’ salaries, York twice mortgaged his home and paid the teachers directly from his own pocket. He also bought school buses with his own money because the county refused to provide them. In 1933 the Department of Education investigated charges that York was guilty of incompetence, negligence, nepotism, and bringing in outsiders. The investigation uncovered no corruption, but state officials recognized that York was ill equipped to assess the capabilities of faculty. They also discovered the enormous lengths to which York’s antagonists had gone to discredit him.
The Department of Education decided that for the survival of the institution, the state would administer the school’s operation. York was named president emeritus and presided over ceremonial functions. The department demanded that the school principal have a bachelor’s degree, and established criteria for the selection of teachers. This action secured the future of York Institute. Today, as the only state-owned and -operated high school in Tennessee, it maintains an excellent academic and athletic record and has one of the largest high school campuses in the world, comprising over fourteen thousand acres. The original Institute building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.