Uncle Lem's is a New Outdoors Shop with a Storied History

Upon entering Uncle Lem's Mountain Outfitters in West Knoxville, you may get the feeling that you've just walked into a shop that's far older than its building might indicate. There may be acoustic rock playing throughout the store—and clothes racks filled with contemporary name-brand apparel from North Face and Patagonia—but there are also some decidedly old-world details: the large framework of a genuine mountain cabin, corrugated tin roofs that overhang the merchandise displays, and salvaged wood floors.

Uncle Lem's may be a new store, but it has a personality and an ideal that goes back generations.

Lem Ownby is the man and the legend from which the store got its name. Ownby was the last man residing on a life lease in the Great Smoky Mountains. He lived near Elkmont throughout his life, tending to his bee hives that produced the honey he sold from his subsistence farm. He was mostly blind in his later years, but continued to live alone in the park until his death in 1984. Ownby is the great-great uncle of Kevin and Lee Hill, who are the founders and owners of Uncle Lem's Mountain Outfitters.

The brothers have maintained that outdoor attitude throughout their lives and have brought it into their new retail venture, which opened in August at 9715 Kingston Pike. Both Kevin and Lee have a rich experience and knowledge of the outdoors through Eagle Scouts, jobs as backpacking guides, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, as well as owning a previous store. Lee Hill currently owns an outdoors store in South Carolina, and his contacts with specialized brands (see a list at unclelems.com) was very helpful in setting up the Knoxville store as quickly as they did. Once they had the idea, it took them a little over six months to open the shop. Much of that time was spent literally salvaging their family's history to put into the store.

"Our family, we've been living in and loving the Great Smoky Mountains for over a century and the way we enjoy that environment has changed from a pioneer lifestyle to a mountain sports lifestyle. But that basic love has been passed on," says Kevin Hill.

This melding of cultures is evident in the local honey sold at the counter as well as the aesthetic of the store itself. The register and front desk is enclosed by old, untreated wood that resembles the skeleton of a mountain cabin, while the display walls are all covered by rusting tin roofs supported by the same gnarled wood. Kevin spent about three months gathering all of this material from his grandfather's old hay barn, which had collapsed. The hardwood floors also have "Lem's" inlaid into the wood, which was salvaged by family from the Manhattan Project dorms after they were torn down.

There is also a small family shrine in one corner of the store that has a painting of Lem Ownby, as well as the Hills' great-great grandfather. The clock that sat on Ownby's mantle for years also sits atop a poem dedicated to him. The owners are currently in the process of tracking down more artifacts from the area to add to their current collection so customers can "come in and have an encounter with the past as they prepare to go encounter the mountains as they are now," says Kevin.

While the Hills are focused on providing a unique and rich atmosphere, they are also interested in providing customers with gear and apparel. The store's slogan reads "Outfitting the outdoor lifestyle for your entire family from town to trail," and that's true. The store carries all the performance brands and their gear for backpacking, but it also carries a great deal of outdoor-inspired casual attire from brands like Sperry, Clarks, and Kuhl that might not be found in a typical outdoor store. One of the outfitter's specialties, though, is the amount—and variety—of women's apparel. The Hills made a very conscious effort to create a more "female-friendly outdoors store." Kevin explains that some stores are too conservative in women's clothing options and he wanted to add more color, style, and brand choice for female shoppers.

Uncle Lem's owners are also interested in furthering another family tradition: community outreach and charity. The store currently hosts the Christian Academy of Knoxville Young Life club meeting, and they would like to do much more. Upon Lem Ownby's death, he left $50,000 to the Tennessee Children's Home. Kevin Hill wants to carry on the giving tradition of his great-great uncle whom he labeled the "mountain-man philanthropist."

"We feel like it's important for us to carry that mantel," he says. "One of the ways we want to do that is to identify and support local children's charities. We're still very much in the stages of tackling all the things we have to do as a business, so it's hard to jump into that right away."