- [S84] E-Mail, Carol Topping [email@example.com], 20 May 2010.
Given name may be Lemuel.
- [S106] The Mountain Press, 25 Jul 2010.
Lem Ownby's mountain life
By Carroll McMahan
After completing a hike on a cold November day in 1980, a couple of friends and myself decided to take a chance and see if Lem Ownby would receive some uninvited visitors. As we approached the weathered house, an early darkness began closing across the sky helping highlight smoke as it ascended from the crude chimney.
I knocked at the door. “Come in,” answered the elderly gentleman. I opened the squeaky screen door an turned the knob to enter the humble mountain home of Lem Ownby, a man who had chosen to live out his life within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Lem was 19 when his birthplace, located near the spot where the Wonderland Hotel would be built, was sold. He had assisted his father, Dave Ownby, building the house that would become his permanent dwelling place on the 40-acre farm, which consisted of rough mountain sides and a babbling brook.
After I introduced myself to Lem, he said, “I know a lot of McMahans, which bunch do you belong to?" Following a brief explanation of family lineage, Lem was at ease. “I remember your Grandpappy George. He was a logger like most of us. Grew up over around Shady Grove where my Mama was from,” he said.
We were aware that Lem was the last man residing on a lessee agreement in the park. Subsequently, Lem had become completely blind after a lifetime of vision impairment. He and his beloved wife, Minnie, had chosen to remain on their property in Elkrnont like the Walker Sisters of Little Greenbrier Cove.
Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Carson Brewer discovered Lem a few years earlier and wrote several articles describing the self-sufficient recluse.
While looking out a window I couldn’t help but notice the active bee hives next to an old coal bin. “Do you still rob
them?" I inquired. “I shore do," Lem quickly answered and added, “I’m not able to do much farmiin’ any more. I'll be 92 years old if l live 'til the 24th day of February. Don’t know where the time went,” he lamented.
Later, when queried about his exceptionally smooth skin, Lem smiled and quickly boasted, "I lay it on the mountain honey that I make.
The conversation continued with back an forth banter on diverse topics including water piped from a nearby spring to a wooden basin on Lem's back porch.
Eventually, the subject of the presidential election being held that very day came up.
"Did you vote today?" I inquired. "I don't ever vote," replied Lem, promptly adding, "I'll bet ye' there's not two cents difference in Reagan or Carter or none of them other fellers up there in Washington.”
Noticing the time and remembering we were unexpected guests, we decided to leave before overextending our welcome. After posing for pictures and exchanging goodbyes, we left.
While leaving, I could not help but look back on the house and through the window noticed Lem rocking by the warm fire. The nonagenarian’s serene expression relayed perfect contentment.
Lem Ownby lived another three years before suffering a fall on his icy porch in late December 1983. He was taken to Fort Sanders Medical Center in Knoxville where he died on Jan. 16, 1984, a month short of his 95th birthday.
Since his passing the old house has been razed by the park service and little remains at the home site today; however, a well earned legacy continues in the legendary stories of the proud mountain man.
Next month, brothers Lee and Kevin Hill, who are great-great-nephews of Lem, plan to open Uncle Lem’s Outfitters at 9715 Kingston Pike in West Knoxville. The store will offer the usual camping and hiking gear found in an outfitters’ business as well as a museum area dedicated to Lem, complete with the old clock he heard clicking for 94 years.
- Carroll McMahan is special projects coordinator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. Upland Chronicles is a series celebrating the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like
to submit a column, or have comments, contact McMahon at 453-6411 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or e-mail to email@example.com.
- [S76] Atchley Funeral Home Records, Volume III, 1974-1986, Larry D. Fox, (Smoky Mountain Historical Society), 16 Jan 1984.
Ownby, Lem Stewart 94 widowed b. 2-24-89 TN d. 1-16-84 Ft Sanders Hosp res R2 Elkmont Gatlinburg farmer f. Thomas m. Sarah Watson Valley View Cem Survivors: Mr&/Mrs Roy Ownby Sev several other n/n informant Herbert R7 Box 65 Sev.
- [S34] In the Shadow of the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, (1993), 674.