Thursday, December 22, 2011


Bill O'Neil's grandfather was Dr. Samuel O'Neil. Dr. O'Neil was the first eye doctor in Hayesville, NC. Bill still has the case that his grandfather used to examine the eyes of patients.

Bill also has a unique hobby. He collects cowbells. He started collecting cowbells when he worked for Neil Cabe. The collection grew through the years and Bill has a huge display now.

In the early 1990's farmers turned their cattle loose in Clay County to graze in the mountains. They put cowbells on the necks of cattle to locate them. Each fall the farmers rounded up their livestock and fenced them nearby until spring.

In the above photo, different sizes of cowbells are displayed. The larger ones had a deep sound, the tiny bells had a high pitch. The pigs even wore tiny bells in order for the farmers to locate them at time of roundup.

Bill O'Neil's cowbell collection reflects a time in the history of Hayesville that is gone but not forgotten.


Dr. Samuel O'Neil, son Sam, and wife, Ollie.



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."


The following poem is about Florence "Mac" Thompson who was a public health nurse in Clay County, NC for 40 years. This poem was displayed at a gala dedication ceremony for the University of North Carolina Hospitals for Women and Children in Chapel Hill, September 8, 2001.


For forty years Mac fought
polio, diphtheria, whooping cough,
all diseases that threatened
the health of mountaineers.

She worked to heal
the bleeding hillsides,
to feed the hungry,
comfort the brokenhearted.

She helped rid poverty
from the rural region.
She worked for power
to light dark homes,

and brought joy to sad
faces filled with pain.
She gave hope to patients
who gave up on life.

The state nurse traveled
muddy roads and forded
Shooting Creek to reach
sick, bedridden folks.

For forty years, Mac Thompson
touched the lives of people.
She cared for mountaineers
with a heartfelt love.
--Brenda Kay Ledford


Dr. Leon Raphael Staton was a country doctor who practiced medicine in Clay County, NC almost four decades. He was a gentle, humble man who made house calls and delivered babies in their homes. He hardly charged anything, usually only a dollar. He gave free physicals to many students at Hayesville High School.

A highway dedication in his memory was held on Saturday, December 17, 2011 at the First Methodist Church in Hayesville, NC. The section of NC 69 from Cherry Road (State Road 1118) northward to US 64 in Clay County was named the Dr. Leon R. Staton Highway.

He was our family physician. When I was about 4 years old, I got the chicken pox. Daddy called Dr. Staton and he made a house call.

When Dr. Staton walked into the living room, I was lying on the couch with my doll. He knew I was a timid child.

"Is your doll sick, too? May I check her?" he asked.

He listened to the doll's heart with his stethoscope, took her pulse, and felt her forehead.

Then Dr. Staton asked if he could look at me. He asked me to stick out my tongue and say, "Augh." He knew how to make a shy child comfortable.

That was typical of the compassion he had for patients. We are fortunate he decided to practice medicine in our county.

Born in Hendersonville, NC, Dr. Staton attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received a medical degree at the University of Maryland. During his residency at Lynchburg Hospital in Virginia, he met and married Nancy Terrell, a registered nurse.

The couple had three children: Leon Terrell Staton, Patricia Staton Ledford, and Robert Howard (Butch) Staton.

Dr. Staton served in the United States Army Medical Corps five years. He also was camp doctor with the CCC's in Harriman, Tennessee.

He read in a magazine that Clay County planned to build a hospital. He and his family moved here in 1940. Although we never got a clinic in our county, the Statons loved the mountains and continued to live in Hayesville.

Dr. Staton served as advisor to the Clay County draft board free of charge. President John F. Kennedy awarded him a certificate for his twenty-five year's service.

Additionally, Dr. Staton served as Clay County Coroner from 1954 to his death in 1976.

It is fitting that the Dr. Leon R. Staton Highway was named for this dedicated physician.

Staton family and descendants, from left: Pat Staton Ledford, Kale Ledford, Terry Staton, Annette Staton, and Pam Staton.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Chatuge Dam is an earth-fill type dam across the Hiawassee River about three miles southeast of Hayesville, NC. At full pool elevation, water covers about 3,700 acres in Towns County, GA.

There was much speculation on June 12, 1941 that a dam was coming to this area. Clay County would be greatly affected by the TVA purchasing one third of the best farm land. Folks feared that many people would have to leave the county making the taxes higher.

According to historian Jerry Taylor, the TVA even worked on Sunday. "Back then folks stopped on Sunday since they attended church," he said. "But the TVA kept working on the storage dam at the mouth of Shooting Creek in Clay County."

Engineers hoped to have the dam finished in 15 months. Almost 2,000 skilled and unskilled employees would be needed to work nonstop on three shifts. Federal experts started looking into land acquisition. The dam in this area was called Chatuge that is believed to mean "the meeting of the waters."

Time is marching on. The House of Representatives passed a bill to build four dams in the Tennessee River area. The Senate gave final approval for the project July 10, 1941.

Besides beginning construction on Chatuge Dam, reunions and revivals were being held in July. About 2,000 Ledfords attended their final reunion and singing in the Scrougetown. Ledford's Chapel was moved to accommodate the dam. My parents, Rondy and Blanche L. Ledford, attended this last reunion before the church was forced to move for the dam.

A regional newspaper ran a feature on August 31, 1941 about the TVA forcing 500 families to move from Shooting Creek. The people were required to relocate by the last day of December, 1941. The prices for the land were still unclear.

Taylor said people thought the dam was needed to help our country win the war. "It was like a lamb to the slaughter," he added. "People did what they had to do."

How did people react to severing their roots? Some were philosophical, others downcast. Some were stubborn and had to be evicted. Most didn't know where they would move. Neighboring countires hiked land prices because farms were needed.

Allen Bell, superintendent of Clay County Schools, didn't know what to do about Elf School. About 283 students attended and most of the families would move. A new road must be built to reach the school. Water would surround the school and students didn't need a lake for their playground.

Holt Patton of Hayesville was worried about losing his land. He figured he would sit on the back seat when the TVA settled up. Patton said he could move his house, but wouldn't have land to make a living. "I'm in a plight," he added.

Hayesville swelled to capacity during the construction of Chatuge Dam. It was a booming town. Construction workers rented rooms out of houses. Citizens complained because of wide differences in land appraisals and there was no choice to sell your land. The TVA took all your land.

People scrambled to move before the December deadline. Some didn't make it. A local paper stated on January 9, 1942 that some old-fashioned neighborliness was needed to help people move. The TVA was burning barns, destroying homes, cutting trees, and clearing the land.

Even the wildlife scampered when their habitats were destroyed. The land looked like a hurricane had struck. A chimney stood where a family once lived. A lone chicken looked for a roosting place. Roads were torn up and muddy. Banks were bare. Water would soon cover the once rich farmland.

The local Lions Club started stocking fish in Lake Chatuge on May 22, 1942. The TVA project was finished.

Beautiful Lake Chatuge located in Clay County, North Carolina near Hayesville, NC.

Boating and fishing are favorite recreational activities on Lake Chatuge. People also enjoy walking and biking across the dam.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Overlooking the mountain town of Hayesville,
an Old Jail Museum holds
secrets of the past.

When Molly turns off the lights,
ghosts creep from old cells
and lurk at night.

Drunks turned over the stove,
coals clinked down the stairs.
A little girl released

the inmates, gave them meals
in the sheriff's kitchen.
Her dad arrested them again.

Yonder on the town square,
fire caught on a maple tree,
the crowd gathered for a hanging.

Grieved by the wind,
the wandering spirit
climbs the creaking steps.
--Brenda Kay Ledford

This poem appeared in SIMPLICITY, a collection of prose and poetry about Clay County, NC.


On the first day of August
the soft release of fragrance,
a crepe myrtle colored
like a fox grape's flesh
tasted the first light
ricocheting across Joe Knob.

Rising before the family,
the farm wife chunked
the fire in the Progress woodstove.
Wearing gloves of flour,
she pounded dough with
veins rolling across rough hands.

Fog swelled in the kitchen,
her hair wilted like bean vines.
She bore the burden
of a mountain wife without sigh.
There was always chores:
making a garden, keeping summer

in jars, shelved for winter tongues.
Tending to a large family,
cooking on the woodstove,
heating water for washing
on a scrub board, flat iron
set on the stove to heat.

Smelling of soap and onions,
hands dry as leatherbreeches,
fatigue was in her face,
hope left her eyes.
Ivy circled the kitchen wall,
crepe myrtle reflecting in the window.
--Brenda Kay Ledford

This poem appeared in SIMPLICITY, a collection of prose and poetry about Clay County, NC.
This is the Progress woodstove that many of our mountain women used to cook food.

The stove and above kitchen cabinet are displayed in the Clay County Historical and Arts Council "Old Jail" Museum at Hayesville, North Carolina in the Gertrude Price section of the building.

Chatuge Dam

This is a photo of Lake Chatuge in Hayesville, North Carolina that was built in 1941 by the Tennessee Valley Authority under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to control flooding in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and to bring power to our region.


Thousands of ripples cut
across Lake Chatuge glittering
like aluminum at wake of day,
sailboats merge with distant
mountains every tint and tone.

Skeletons of the past emerge
during the water’s drawdown,
ruins of the 1940’s surface—
roadbeds of communities covered
by a million yards of concrete.

Pieces of farm machinery pierce
the cracking mud, broken plates
from home places litter
flat river rocks, foundations
strong as when laid remain.

Corncribs and barns were leveled,
log cabins burned, eroded farms seized
and the Ledford’s cemetery moved,
as the TVA bulldozed the land
bringing light to the mountains.
--Brenda Kay Ledford

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


In December 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war were second-rate news stories in Clay County. The top story of the day was the giant dam the government planned to build here in the Blue Ridge Mountains along the North Carolina-Georgia border.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Chatuge Dam would flood 3,700 acres in Clay County and 3,500 acres in Towns County, Georgia, much of it prime farmland that allowed residents to earn what living the could in a region still swamped by economic depression. In less than a year, the TVA sent 278 families to new homes, built new roads and imposed a new life on communities from Hayesville, North Carolina to Blairsville, Georgia.

The little cooperative, Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, formed only four years earlier to bring Tennessee Valley Authority electricity to this area, reached out to mountain families and offered a new form of power to accompany the changes. Already skeptical of sudden change, some families flatly refused to join the electric cooperative, fearing that electricity would kill their livestock or burn down their barns.

Into this scene came young Velma Beam from Roxboro—all 4 feet, 7 inches of her—hired by the TVA and the North Carolina Extension Service as “assistant home demonstration agent.” Her job in 1941 was to help Clay County families adjust to the changes that TVA and electricity would bring to farm life. But she just went about helping people any way she could.

Velma’s main role was to help people plan new houses and get them “happily and comfortably located.” But what they really needed was to revive their anemic farmlands. “These hillsides were bleeding,” Velma said. “When a rain came the mud washed down. It was our job to get people to grow legumes and grass.”

Many evenings she sat on farmhouse floors, met with farmers by oil lamp light, studied maps and setting plans. The TVA gave farmers phosphate and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service gave them lime to enrich the soil. They would leave unfertilized “check plots,” said Velma, because “a lot of the elderly men thought phosphate was just sand.” Within six years farm income increased 106 percent. The program established 174 poultry farms, and Velma said the eggs brought a fancy price. Soon, these families considered buying electric stoves, washers, and dryers.

Velma clearly saw the advantages electricity would bring to this area. Her spunky enthusiasm carried her from farm to farm enrolling members in the electric cooperative. “I went from Shooting Creek to Brasstown, from Fires Creek to Myers Chapel working up the membership lines. That was a real good job, and I was happy to do it.”

She recalled seeing women rubbing their hands raw while washing clothes outside in a black wash pot. “They couldn’t have a washer and dryer. Now you go through Clay County, almost everyone has a washer and dryer.”

Besides introducing the convenience of electricity to Clay County, Velma taught home furnishing, nutrition, estate planning and family life economics.
The TVA and North Carolina Extension Service demonstration program soon gained national attention. Students from South America, Norway and Greece visited Clay County to observe their program. Extension groups across America asked Velma to speak at their clubs.
“I was thrilled to brag about Clay County,” she said.

Velma believed her principal accomplishment was to encourage mountaineers to appreciate their culture. “When you make people realize they have something special, it makes them want to live up to the expectations,” she said. “I was a little country girl, and I knew they had something special. It’s a gift from God.”

Her dedication to the county continued after she retired in 1958. She and her late husband, J. Walter Moore, gave land to establish the Hinton Rural Life Center, a mission agency of the United Methodist Church in Clay County that encourages young people. She was active in the First United Methodist Church of Hayesville and was an auxiliary member of the Clay County Care Center. She wrote a weekly column for the Clay County Progress and expressed concerns for her county, such as the demise of many farms.

Velma Beam Moore made a difference in the lives of many people. I remember her fondly as a dear friend and one who encouraged folks. She loved Clay County and was struck by the beauty of our Blue Ridge Mountains. She said, “In Clay County, I feel I am on the threshold of heaven.”
Cutline for photo: Velma Beam Moore brought light to our mountains.

This story is being reprinted from Carolina Country Magazine.