Legend has it Uncle Lem Owenby turned away not one, but two Supreme Court Justices who showed up at his secluded cabin to meet a “real mountain man.” A reclusive hermit recognized as one of the last independent Appalachian mountaineers, Uncle Lem lived his entire life on his 44-acre farm near Elkmont, Tennessee. Instead of selling his land, Uncle Lem held out when the federal government attempted to buy his property to create the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the 1930s. Instead, he opted for a lifetime lease that allowed him to remain on his farm, keeping bees, selling honey and offering nuggets of wisdom to friends and the occasional passing hiker.
Today, his great-great nephews have commercialized his memory, naming their regional chain of outdoor apparel shops for their ancestor’s legacy. Uncle Lem’s Outfitters opened in Pigeon Forge in February 2019, which coincidentally would have been Uncle Lem’s 110th birthday. The opening of the Pigeon Forge location brings the locally owned specialty sporting goods store a bit closer to the hiking trails of the Smokies.
The Pigeon Forge location is the newest of the three Uncle Lem’s locations. The others are in Knoxville, about 20 miles away. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Pigeon Forge store when you see the antique red truck suspended above the Parkway. Given its location in a touristy area, you’ll find a bigger selection of souvenirs and branded merchandise at the Pigeon Forge store. However, there’s also a good selection of outdoor gear, camping equipment, hiking boots and more. When it comes to clothing, Uncle Lem’s Outfitters maintains a “town to trail” approach. The store sells wares that easily transition from a morning spent antiquing followed by an afternoon exploring the woods. Hiking gear and boots, fashion clothing, cold-weather gear, coats, jackets and more from brands like Smartwool, Chacos, Patagonia, True Grit and Osprey are among the offerings.
Perhaps the best aspect of Uncle Lem’s is the knowledgeable staff. If you have questions about the gear, just ask. They’ll be happy to point you in the right direction. Want to know where the most picturesque waterfalls are? Someone on staff will certainly share their favorite off-the-beaten-path hiking trail or point you to one of the illustrated trail guides available in all the stores. And if you want to explore the Smokies by water instead of by foot, rent a paddleboard or kayak from Uncle Lem’s. Equipment is available for one-day, three-day or week-long rentals for very reasonable prices. Rentals are available at all three locations.
– You can still buy Uncle Lem’s raw, unpasteurized, local honey at all the Outfitter locations, or purchase it online. Sourwood or wildflower varieties are sold.
– Uncle Lem’s carries high-end gear but frequently has a sale corner in the back of the shop where you might score a good deal.