Uncle Lem's Story
Born in 1889 in the Smoky Mountains, Lemuel “Lem” Ownby spent his long life on the land where he was born—growing food, tending bees, and living peacefully near Jake’s Creek in Elkmont, Tennessee.
In the 1930s, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was being formed, Lem chose to have a life lease instead of selling outright to the government. Staking himself to his remote property, he was dedicated to his love of the mountains and his beloved home in their midst.
He was content to be isolated and alone there in the woods, but Lem was frequently visited by people who came to buy his honey, hear his stories and receive his advice.
Lem became famous for the tales of his simple wisdom and his indifference to politicians—and even Supreme Court Justices—who trod up Jake’s Creek to meet the mountain sage. Living most of his later years without sight, Lem became one with his mountain landscape. When asked to what he credited his longevity and vitality, Lem responded, “I lay it up to the honey.”
When Lem passed away, he donated his life savings to support underprivileged children at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home. What surprised many who knew of him was not Lem’s generosity, but the size of the contribution, which has grown to be a fund of over $70,000. Years of simple living and selling honey to hikers translated into a blessing for the children Lem and his wife Mimmie were never able to have for themselves.
Lem was fiercely self-reliant—a simple man, a family man, a beekeeper, and a lover of the outdoors. By the time of his death in 1984 at nearly 95 years of age, he was “A Legend of the Smokies.”
Honoring the Legacy of our Uncle Lem
The integrity, ruggedness and independence of Lem Ownby resonates with people far and wide. In 2010, brothers Kevin and Lee Hill, who are great-great nephews of Uncle Lem, together with Kevin’s wife Cheryl, founded the first Uncle Lem’s Outfitters, named in honor of Lem and the Appalachian identity his memory represents.
The first location of Uncle Lem’s opened in West Knoxville at 9715 Kingston Pike, just minutes from where Kevin Hill grew up. In an economic recession, the store was constructed with hard work and determination. Using family barnwood on the walls and fixtures, and tin roof on interior roof sections, the ambience of Uncle Lem’s is rugged, classy and unique.
(Kevin and Cheryl Hill with Family, photo taken in 2018)
In 2016, recognizing the potential for growth in South Knoxville, where Knoxville’s renowned Urban Wildnerness trails and parks snake through old neighborhoods, abandoned marble and granite mines and along the riverfront, Kevin Hill and a business partner, Kendrick Smith, had the vision to restore a rundown building as a second store location at 1024 Sevier Avenue.
Between 2014 and 2017, Uncle Lem’s had been recruited by developers in Pigeon Forge, a tourist development just down the mountain from Uncle Lem’s old homeplace. Kevin and Cheryl Hill decided to investigate the opportunities awaiting them in Pigeon Forge should they lease something separate from the pursuing developers. This led to discovering that a City of Pigeon Forge property, the former visitor center, was about to become available. It is right on the Parkway in one of the most desirable locations for retail on the entire strip.
Uncle Lem’s won the bid process with the City of Pigeon Forge with the appeal of a business plan based on authentic mountain experiences. The owners are celebrating this once-in-a-life-time opportunity, and are working hard to open the third Uncle Lem’s later this year. Owning the land and starting a retail location in the heart of the Smoky Mountains where Uncle Lem personally called home is a dream come true!
Coming to 2450 Parkway, Pigeon Forge, TN at the end of 2018!
To learn even more about Uncle Lem, check out the book written about his life here in the Great Smoky Mountains, Elkmont's Uncle Lem Ownby by F. Carroll McMahan by clicking here!