Upland Chronicles: A tribute to Winfred Ownby
I met Winfred Ownby for the first time on Jan. 12, 2008. He walked up to me after the conclusion of a program I presented about Uncle Lem Ownby at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge. He was clad in bibbed overalls and walking with a cane. I was startled, at first glance, at his remarkable resemblance to Lem Ownby, who had passed on 25 years earlier.
“Uncle Lem was my great-uncle,” he said. “I sure wish you’d write a book about him.” Although I had completed a good deal of research about Lem Ownby, who was the last resident to live within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a life-lessee agreement, Winfred shared some stories about his great-uncle I had never heard.
My conversation with Winfred that day was brief. However, I realized he possessed a wealth of information on a subject in which I was very interested. Winfred was a grandson of Lem’s oldest brother Dave. Therefore, Winfred’s father Stephen was only four years younger than Lem. So, Winfred grew up at Elkmont surrounded by the big Ownby clan that included his great-uncle Lem Ownby, who was only 31 years older than Winfred.
Born at Elkmont on Dec. 17, 1920, Winfred Stephen Ownby was one of six children of Stephen and Eva Cook Ownby. His parents lived in the cabin now known as the Avent cabin, which was given to them as a wedding gift from Eva’s father Sam Cook, from the time they married on Oct. 10, 1914 until they sold the property to Frank and Mayna Avent in 1918.
Winfred was born two years later in another house not far from there. His siblings were Iva (Franklin), Albert, Roy, Grace (Trentham), and Henry. He grew up working on his father’s farm and hunting in the surrounding woods with his male relatives. As a young man he worked for the CCC before serving in the U.S. Army during World War ll.
He served in the 7th armored division in the European Theater. Winfred earned several commendations, including two Purple Hearts and two certificates of merit while serving in the army. After the war ended he returned to Sevier County but soon left the area in search of a good job.
In 1950 Winfred joined Ironworkers Local 451 which encompasses three counties in Delaware and two counties in Pennsylvania. As an ironworker he traveled throughout the country working on various bridges and buildings.
He was working on the Delaware Memorial Bridge linking New Castle, Delaware and Pennsville, New Jersey when he met his future wife, a nurse named Dorothy Scott. They married on Winfred’s 40th birthday, Dec. 17, 1960. Winfred and Dorothy raised their three children, Joan (Parkinson), Winfred Stephen, Jr. and Connie (McCarter), in Delaware.
Winfred and Dorothy moved to Sevierville in 1986 when Winfred retired. Sadly, Dorothy died in 1995 at age 67. Winfred chose to live out the remainder of his days in the house they purchased on New Era Road.
I saw Winfred again on June 25, 2011, during an open house at the newly renovated Appalachians Clubhouse at Elkmont. As soon as he saw me, Winfred asked “When are you going to write that book about Uncle Lem?” “I’ll get around to it one of these days," I replied. “Well, you better not wait too much longer, or there won’t be anyone left that remembers him,” he added.
Several other people had suggested that I write a book about Lem Ownby. I finally got serious about writing the long-promised book in 2013, five years after Winfred had first mentioned the idea to me.
Once I signed an agreement with the History Press to write “Elkmont’s Uncle Lem Ownby: Sage of the Smokies,” I called Winfred Ownby and told him I was ready to begin the project and would need his help.
“Come over anytime you want to, I’ll be glad to tell you everything I know about my Uncle Lem,” he said. Over the hot months of June and July I sat down with Winfred several times. By this time he was 92 and almost blind, but his memory was as sharp as ever. He was gracious to invite me into his home, provide photographs and share colorful reminisces about his great-uncle. In fact, some of the stories he shared and a few photographs from his personal collection could not have been found elsewhere.
When the book was completed and published, no one was more excited than Winfred Ownby. He attended the book signing Oct. 12 at Valley View Baptist Church in Wear’s Valley, where he enjoyed receiving a copy of the book and visiting with old friends.
Two months later, Winfred Ownby was gone. He died on his 93rd birthday, Dec. 17, 2013. Remarkably, he was born (in 1920), married (in 1960), and died (in 2013) on Dec. 17. With full military honors conducted by the American Legion Post 104, he was laid to rest beside Dorothy in the Levi Trentham Cemetery at Elkmont.
He loved to tell stories about his kinfolk and growing up in the Smoky Mountains, but Winfred was modest when it came to talking about his own accomplishments. However, I came to realize he had quite an interesting life himself.
Often, after someone who has lived a long, interesting life has died, we regret we did not take the time to ask more questions before it was too late. I am grateful I did not miss my opportunity to talk to Winfred Ownby. Farewell Winfred, may you rest in peace.
Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.
The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics,would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org;or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com.