JAMESTOWN — Almost 104 years ago, a young man from Fentress County boarded a train and headed to Oneida via the O&W Railroad, where he caught another train on the Cincinnati-Southern to Fort Gordon, Ga., for basic training.
The following autumn, that Army draftee — Alvin Cullum York — became an American legend when he led a charge on an enemy battalion, nearly single-handedly silencing 35 German machine guns and taking 132 prisoners.
Sgt. York was born in a one-room cabin in Pall Mall, in the Three Forks of the Wolf River Valley that divides a peaceful valley north of Jamestown. He was a ruffian in his young age, much to the chagrin of his mother, who constantly prayed that her son would turn away from the booze and accept Christ. In 1915, he did just that, at the small community church that still stands on the banks of the Wolf River. Then America was pulled into The Great War and York was drafted into the Army. He objected for religious reasons. “I was worried clean through,” he said. “I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”
When his objection was overruled, he fought. And he returned home already a legend, thanks to the Saturday Evening Post, which reported his heroics to a grateful nation.
York at first rejected the fanfare that he received, but then he realized that he could use his newfound fame to make lives better back home in impoverished Fentress County. He never received much formal education in his own youth, and he wanted to make sure that others from the Wolf River Valley and surrounding areas had opportunities that he didn’t have.
York began raising funds for a high school in his native Fentress County as early as 1919, soon after he returned home from the war. The new school — the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute — opened in 1929, operating as a private school until 1937, when financial pressures from the Great Depression led York to transfer ownership to the State of Tennessee. York didn’t build his school in his native Pall Mall, but instead in nearby Jamestown — “up on the mountain,” as they call it in Fentress County. He situated it on a 400-acre tract that is said to be the largest public high school campus in the world.
It was in 1939, a decade after the school opened and two years after York transferred ownership to the state, that Oneida and York first met in football. The first game wasn’t even close; the Indians won that game 47-0.
They played again in 1940, and it was much closer. But it was still a win, as the Indians won 13-6.
The following year, in 1941, two things happened: The film Sergeant York was released, with Gary Cooper playing York, which brought new fame to Fentress County’s favorite son. And York earned its first win over Oneida, 13-6.
The two teams wouldn’t meet again until 1949. That started a four-game winning streak for Oneida, which saw the Indians outscore York by a total of 104-7 over the four-year span, before York picked up wins against the Indians in 1953 and 1954.
Then Oneida began another four-year winning streak against York in 1955, out-scoring the Dragons by a total of 136-7 over the span of the four games.
At that point, 1958, Oneida owned a 10-3 series record against its rival on the opposite side of the Big South Fork River Gorge.
Speaking of the gorge, it was a much tougher trip to Jamestown back then than it is now. Taking S.R. 297 from Oneida to Jamestown wasn’t an option because it didn’t exist, and wouldn’t exist until the federal government had swooped in and bought up most of the land between the two neighboring northern Cumberland Plateau towns in the late 1970s. Back then, the original Leatherwood Road — which was a rough road even in the best of times — traveled across the river by way of a low-lying, one-lane wooden bridge, through White Pine and to Alticrest and beyond.
That didn’t stop the two schools from traveling to one another’s place to play on an almost annual basis, though. Between 1939 and 1978, Oneida and York met 27 times in 40 years.
In 1964, just weeks after Sgt. York died at a Nashville hospital at the age of 77, the Dragons defeated Oneida 28-19. It was York’s only win against the Indians in a seven-game span from 1955 to 1966, and their first win over the Indians in a decade.
The series flipped in the 1970s. Oneida led 15-6 entering the 1972 season. But that year, York began a seven-year winning streak against the Indians. Most of the games between 1972 and 1978 were close. Then, in 1978, the Dragons won 42-6, and the series ended. It would be two full decades before the two teams met again.
In 1997, Oneida and York met for the first time since 1978. The Indians hadn’t defeated York since 1971. That was the year Coach Jim May died after suddenly collapsing on the sideline during a game. Oneida had a good team, going undefeated in the regular season. And the Indians defeated York, 42-6.
The two teams continued to meet on a regular basis, with Oneida winning the next three games in the next three years. In all, the Indians out-scored the Dragons 110-12 in the four-year span before York won 26-14 in 2001.
That 2001 game started a six-game winning streak by the Dragons that spanned 18 years. In 2019, Oneida stunned York — not necessarily because the Indians won, but because of how much they won by. The final was 33-0 in what would turn out to be Coach Tony Lambert’s final game against the Dragons.
The two teams were scheduled to meet again in 2020, but York canceled after heavy rains. Oneida offered to play the game at Jim May Stadium, but the request was denied.
This year, the teams meet as region foes, following the TSSAA realignment that followed last season. It’s in many ways a natural rivalry that’s been on-again, off-again through the years, since shortly after Sgt. York returned from war and used his fame and influence to build a school for young Fentress Countians.