DR. SAMUEL O’NEIL WAS CLAY COUNTY’S FIRST OPTOMETRIST
Brenda Kay Ledford
How do we know what happened 150 years ago? How do we learn about history? People wrote about it and passed knowledge to family and friends.
Bill O’ Neil’s family history played an important role in Clay County. His grandfather, Dr. Samuel F. O’Neil, was the first optometrist here.
According to Bill, “Dr. Sam was the only optometrist west of Asheville. He traveled to Andrews and even to Atlanta giving eye exams to patients.”
Bill still has ledgers his grandfather used to write prescriptions. The books are filled with names, dates, and methods of payment. A pair of glasses cost $12.00 in the early 1900’s. Many folks had little money and gave Dr. Sam farm products such as milk, butter, eggs, or vegetables.
Additionally, Bill owns the case to fit patients with glasses. The black leather covering the box is worn, but contains lenses and eye charts in great condition.
Bill shows me Dr. Sam’s naturalization paper. His family left Ireland in the 1800’s aboard a steamboat. They landed on the Northeast coast of America, settled in Texas, and later moved to Chicago, Illinois.
Dr. Sam decided to succeed. He worked as a child at odd jobs. He finished high school at night, and graduated from college. Dr. Sam was certified to examine eyes and fit people with glasses at age 18 (Clay County Progress, Thursday, March 5, 1998).
But Dr. Sam wanted to travel. He left Chicago in 1884 on a bicycle. A trailer was hooked to the back, filled with the tools of his trade. There were no paved roads or highways. On his journey, he examined eyes and fitted patients with glasses (Ibid).
According to Bill, Dr. Sam passed through Clay County on his way to Florida. Dr. Sam met the lovely Ollie Padgett. It must have been love at first sight. He reportedly said, “I’m coming back to marry you.” And that’s just what he did!
They were married and lived in Clarksville, GA. Dr. Sam drove the first car into Clay County in 1914. It was a 1912 Ford roadster and it took seven hours to travel from Clarksville to Hayesville.
“There was not a foot of paved road,” said Ollie O’Neil in a Clay County Progress article (Friday, February 18, 1995). She continued, “The roads were so narrow tree branches from either side almost met in the middle of the road. We had about six flat tires on the way, maybe four.”
When Dr. Sam chugged into Hayesville, it caused an uproar. The chickens squawked, and horses were so frightened they ran off the road. People cheered and chased the motorcar through town. Some folks had never seen an automobile. I imagine it was like the apocalypse when the O’Neil family rackety-put-putted in their horseless carriage through our remote mountains.
The O’Neil family moved to Clay County in 1918. They bought a home adjoining the Hayesville High School property (Guy Padgett, History of Clay County, NC, 1976).
Dr. Sam practiced optometry in this area until his death in 1931. He left his wife and two children with only ten dollars and the home. Their daughter soon died of polio (Ibid).
Some members of the family wanted to dispose of Dr. Sam’s case of lenses. Fortunately, Ollie insisted they keep the treasure.
Now Bill O’Neil owns his grandfather’s case of lenses. He displayed it, family photos, and Dr. Sam’s prescription pads at the Kickoff Ceremony for the Clay County Sesquicentennial on Monday, February 21, 2011 at the Clay County Government Center.
This story is being reprinted from the "Clay County Progress."