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.”
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.
Uncle Lem’s began in West Knoxville, 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. This location closed in September 2019.
In February 2019, we were able to bring Uncle Lem's home to the Great Smoky Mountains... and here the story continues. We hope you will visit us soon!
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!