In the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, there’s a place where gremlins and elves live in peace, where faeries play with leprechauns, where cottages built into the earth make you wonder if Bilbo Baggins lives there.
Except this isn’t J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Here, hobbits and orcs are friends.
I know. Wacky.
I had to visit.
“The whole idea is to get people to talk to each other and find out there are no bad people,” says Tom Boyd, the 83-year-old entrepreneur who built this place. He named it Ancient Lore Village.
He says it’s cost him $13 million. So far.
At Ancient Lore Village, I threw an axe. I tried archery. I slept in the “Leprechaun’s Lair.” I ate and drank a lot.
This is not just a story about bringing an unusual idea to life. It’s also the story of a man who’s spent his entire life creating businesses to make lots of money, until he realized one day that America can be a very angry place, and he wanted to do something about it.
Here’s a peek inside:
Ancient Lore Village sits on 40 acres outside Knoxville and is billed as a first-class destination for families, weddings and corporate events, a place where people can experience something like Middle Earth–meets–Renaissance Faire.
There are seven rooms, each with its own theme and unique details — Bokee’s Bungalow, Fairy Cottage, Orc Home. “We don’t allow TVs,” Boyd tells me. “You have to talk to each other.”
If you think Tom Boyd is nuts for building this place in what seems like the middle of nowhere — I kinda did, even though Dollywood is only 40 minutes east — skepticism only makes this octogenarian more certain he’ll succeed. Boyd pursues ideas no one else will touch, because it means less competition. And Ancient Lore Village is not the first oddball project Tom Boyd has launched.
I first met Boyd in 2018 as he was building out a company called BioPet.
BioPet’s top product is PooPrints, a DNA testing kit for dog poop that busts people in condo complexes and apartments who don’t pick up after their pets.
Kinda makes Ancient Lore Village suddenly sound normal.
Again, the more people call him crazy, the more Tom Boyd sees opportunity.
Dog feces attract rats and disease, yet a 2014 survey by Stormwater Manager’s Resource Center showed about 40% of dog owners just leave the poop on the ground! “If you live in a high rise in New York, you’ve got 200 dogs,” Boyd told me in my story back then for CNBC. “Forty percent don’t pick up, that’s 80 dogs. They go twice a day.” That’s a whole lotta poop.
When we spoke three years ago, PooPrints’ annual revenues were $7 million. BioPet CEO J Retinger says sales have more than doubled and will hit $15 million this year — not quite the $120 million Boyd predicted within five years in 2018, but there’s still time! The company now has 6,000 customers, and Retinger says, “We’ll process close to 150,000 swabs of poop this year.”
But I digress.
Back to Ancient Lore Village. Tom Boyd says this idea was born out of a painful experience.
Tom’s son, Randy Boyd, is President of the University of Tennessee. He’s an extremely successful businessman in his own right who lost the Republican primary for governor in 2018.
Tom helped his son campaign around the state, and the political divide shocked him. “I went and saw nothing but hatred and anger and misunderstanding, and when the campaign was over, I said, ‘This is not the way the world should live.’” He was inspired to do something. “The question was, how could I change the world one small way, or begin the conversation to make the world better?”
Boyd started by writing a children’s book called “Bokee’s Trek: Outcasts to the Inner Earth,” a story where fantastical creatures from childhood bedtime stories come together and realize they’re not enemies, but friends — gremlins, Yetis, orcs, faeries, elves and leprechauns. “I wrote a book about ancient lore characters that lived in a world where things were better than they are here,” he says.
Boyd’s main character is Bokee, who is a “Willow,” a race described as “nearly six feet tall and very handsome.” Willows have pointed ears with lobes that “droop to their shoulders.” They also have very long arms reaching to their knees.
Bokee kinda looks like a young Tom Boyd (except for the long earlobes and arms).
All of the characters in the book end up living together in a heavenly village called “Inner Earth.” Boyd says that by building the resort in Knoxville, “I brought that village to the World of Man.” He says his goal is to create a place where people can talk to each other and enjoy some peace and quiet.
Uh… this doesn’t sound like the Tom Boyd I met three years ago, the man who told me, “I think you become an entrepreneur simply because you want to make money.” Make no mistake, he wants to make money on Ancient Lore Village, but he’s mostly spent a lot of money so far.
He hired local architect Daniel Levy (not the actor...) to help create the village. Some cottages cost as much as $1 million to build. Bokee’s Bungalow is especially noteworthy. Levy tells me he had to sink the building 20 feet into the ground and cover the roof with 200,000 pounds of soil, “and then you had to calculate how rain would add [weight] to that soil and what plants were going to be put on it.”
Boyd's wife, artist Sandi Burdick, helped design the gardens. She also managed to find and acquire dozens of unique light fixtures, despite a global supply chain crisis.
Levy says not every idea worked. “We wanted to try a 200-foot tree and have five or six tree houses within it.” The trunk alone would’ve cost a couple of million dollars. “We went back to the drawing board on that one.”
The whimsical doors to Ancient Lore Village opened to the public in April. Most business so far has come from weddings, but corporate events are growing.
I stayed at Ancient Lore Village the evening it hosted a fundraiser for PJ Parkinson’s Support Group. Guests wandered from room to room and were entertained by a local dance troupe. One guest was dressed as a wizard. There was plenty of finger food and booze.
I was the only person staying over, paying $340 for one night in the Leprechaun’s Lair. Inside, there was a large fireplace. The stonework over the mantel swirled out in circles like clouds around the eye of a hurricane. Walls were flecked with gold, which Boyd says is real. A small leprechaun statue was hiding in a cupboard. There were large rocking chairs (Tennessee!), snacks, wifi and music. The bed was comfy, the shower was hot, and breakfast the next morning was delicious.
Tom Boyd says the leprechaun in Ancient Lore Village has a sense of humor, but he doesn’t stir up any evil mischief.
If only Boyd’s neighbors agreed there was no mischief going on...
The biggest challenge Boyd has faced has been pushback from neighbors after a 2019 news story from WJHL reported he planned to build “more than 150 period homes and treehouses, a restaurant, a 500-person event center and a 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.”
Boyd says, “In hindsight, it was the wrong concept.” There is a small amphitheater which seats probably fewer than 100 people. Ancient Lore Village’s Facebook page does describe it as a performance venue, but Boyd says it’s about hosting string quartets, not rock concerts. As for building 150 homes and treehouses, he says there are only seven, intentionally, to force people to get to know each other and be neighborly. “The one we [now] have is perfect for the area,” Boyd says of the Knoxville resort, adding that it also provides him with a small model to test the idea’s market potential.
At least one neighbor wasn’t buying that story the night of the Parkinson’s fundraiser. There were probably 100 people here, and the gathering was lively but not loud. Still, as the sun set, I heard the sound of someone shooting a firearm into the air some distance away. “Welcome to Tennessee,” joked one of the guests. Boyd apologized to the crowd for the jarring “welcome” and said it was a rude neighbor who doesn’t understand what he’s trying to build. “I think he’s from Ohio.”
The rest of the evening went off without a hitch.
As I’m publishing this, Ancient Lore Village is kicking off the official grand opening of its axe-throwing and archery ranges with an event starring social media influencers, including “Medieval Ashley,” whose midsummer TikTok video received more than 60,000 likes. Here it is on Instagram:
“We’re going to build these all over the world,” Tom Boyd tells me. He’s always talked a big game about every business endeavor, always predicted massive success, but I’ve never seen him as excited about anything as he is about Ancient Lore Village.
He created Boyd Hollow Resorts to license out the concept. “Our goal over the next three years is to have 70 under construction with a potential of over 500 villages worldwide,” he tells me. Licenses start at $20 million. Characters could be tweaked to fit local lore in places like China. “We’d handle all management and concepts to assure the village mission is adhered to.”
Boyd hired Melissa Blettner as CEO after she spent 17 years building out Great Wolf Resorts, a chain of indoor water parks based in Madison, Wisconsin. Blettner estimates that 2022 revenues in Knoxville could reach $5 million.
She calls Tom’s vision “hospitality with purpose,” because he wants people to come away from their visit filled with joy. “He’s not doing it for the money,” she says, “because he could have kept the money and not built the village.”
Sitting around counting his money is not what 83-year-old Tom Boyd would ever do. I watched him gleefully give a tour of his property in a golf cart, jump into a Bobcat to move large rocks, and (almost) shoot a bullseye in the archery area with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“Learn to live different, slow down,” he tells me, something he’s incapable of. He talks about the village more like a bright-eyed 20-year-old than a grizzled entrepreneur driven by the bottom line. He calls the village his legacy.
“We have a place of no evil,” he says with complete sincerity. “If I could change one person, 10 people, 1,000 people to think a little better, that would be a good thing, and we should live our life trying to do good things.”
So… would you go? Let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for unusual entrepreneurs who’ve built strange companies. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.