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Uncle Lem’s opens

Kevin Hill has combined business and a love of storytelling at Uncle Lem’s Mountain Outfitters, which he and his brother, Lee, have opened at 9715 Kingston Pike.

The store provides technical and “town wear” apparel for the whole family, as well as backpacks, shoes, hiking and camping equipment and even water sports gear.

“We have good quality gear selection for our regional community,” Kevin said.

The store focuses on equipping travelers and outdoor enthusiasts for “an encounter with our region,” but also carries or can special order gear for travelers to other areas.

But more importantly to the Hill brothers, they want the store to be a gathering place “like what stores used to be in a community,” Kevin said.

And that’s where Kevin’s stories start.

The store is named for the Hill brothers’ great-great-uncle, Lem Ownby, the last lifetime leaseholder in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“He became unique and special because he was a living time capsule,” Kevin said.

Uncle Lem, the blind beekeeper, lived above Elkmont on 40 acres in the middle of the Park, and he became well-known and well-loved by Elkmont cabin owners and wandering travelers and hikers.

“Buying his honey became part of peoples’ planned visits to the Smokies … he was this wonderful historical piece that people could get to know,” Kevin said.

Uncle Lem loved people and had a sly manner about him.

“Foster Arnett … back in the [19]70s, there were two Supreme Court justices … who came to visit him,” Kevin said of his Uncle Lem.

“Foster knocked on the door and said, ‘Lem, I’ve got some people here to see you.’ And he said, ‘Well who are they?’ Foster said, ‘They’re Supreme Court justices from Washington D.C.’”

“And Lem’s response was, ‘Well, Foster, you can come in but those fellas have to stay outside.’ … And they’re doubled over laughing and Foster is red-faced and embarrassed about this.

“But the neat part of the story is that after they catch their breath, they look at Foster and say, ‘This is the best thing that could have ever happened. Nobody ever tells us no.’ … They appreciated the common man saying ‘I don’t care who ya are,’” Kevin added.

Lem’s life became well known even on an international level, attracting foreign hikers and beekeepers to his cabin in the woods, with water running from a stream into a trough on the back porch.

Uncle Lem’s presence pervades the store, which is built-out with reclaimed barn wood from a Hill family farm in Clinton.

And that connection to Appalachian history is what Kevin wants to preserve and respect in his store.

“We want people who come in the store to find their connection too,” he said.

“You can get a taste and see a different lifestyle in the Smokies. … It’s something to inhabit in your imagination,” he added.

Uncle Lem died in 1984, donating his entire lifesavings, $54,000, to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home.

“No one was surprised at the generosity, but we were surprised that he had $54,000 in a bank somewhere,” Kevin laughed.

In keeping with the Uncle Lem tradition, Kevin and Lee are working on a process for customers to designate a portion of their payments for merchandise to local children’s charities.

And the brothers are thoughtful of their impact on the natural environment they want to preserve. At Uncle Lem’s, shoppers will receive their merchandise in bags from other stores that went unused after logo or graphics changes.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Kevin joked.

Uncle Lem’s is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and is closed Sundays. For more information, call the store at 865-357-8566 or visit


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