O'Neill, founded as an Irish colony in 1874, was named for General John O'Neill. It became Holt County's seat of government in an election with the town of Paddock in 1879. O'Neill, on a primary route to the Black Hills during the gold rush, was an important cattle shipping point on the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad for many years. It continues to be the hub of a large ranching and agricultural area, with a current population of just over 4,000.
There have been some significant changes in the past decade -- most of which have been right here in the heart of the city, where Douglas intersects with Fourth Street.
Let's stop traffic for a minute so we can stand on the giant green shamrock painted on the center the intersection and take a look.
There on the northwest is the First National Bank, started in 1884. The old bank building was replaced by a new structure in 1965, with a sizable expansion completed in 1989 (where Gambles Store was.) They held a grand opening during the annual July Summerfest.
On the northeast corner is the grand Golden Hotel. Originally built in 1913, it was the gathering place for the elite for over 50 years. Then, after changing owners several time, it finally closed and stood empty for several years. In 1987 David Boice, seeing its beauty, potential, and the need for such an establishment again, purchased the building and started extensive remodeling of the interior. The first floor, includes space for the "Golden Shear" barber and hair salon. Renovation of most of the second floor rooms also has been completed.
On the southeast corner is the first all-brick building in O'Neill, opened in 1884 as a bank. Moses P.Kinkaid came to O'Neill as a young lawyer in 1881. His law office was right there on the second floor. Most famous for the Kinkaid Land Act, he became a state senator in 1882, a judge of the 12th District in 1887, and a congressman in 1902. In 1984 the "Kinkaid Building," now on the National Register of Historic Places, reopened as the Holt County Historical Museum.
The southwest corner of the intersection is where the first gas pump in O'Neill was located. The old station was later demolished and a building, used as a bank, was built.
My goodness, we have traffic backed up clear back to the bridge. Let's go over to the sidewalk and walk south to the "Golden Age Senior Center." Built in 1982, this is where meals for senior citizens are served each weekday. When the schedule permits, the center is used by the community for other social activities. A new wing is to be added soon, since more room is needed.
Next is the "Dan Ryan Theater," built in 1983 by Neil and Bonnie Ryan in honor of their son Dan, who died at age ten in a car-pedestrian accident. The theater is used by one of Vivian Melena's dance groups five days a week. O'Neill's Irish dancers were organized in 1967. They represent the city at parades and celebrations, and have preformed at the Nebraska State Fair, Omaha Art Festival, Governor Exon and Governor Orr inaugural balls, and represented Nebraska in Washington D.C. during the nation's bicentennial celebration. Each St.Patrick's Day, over 200 Irish dancers perform on that big shamrock in the middle of town, and then, led by the American Legion flag bearers, parade down the street.
The theater building is also used by the Town & Country Square Dancers, Alpha Teens, Businessmen's Fellowship, and other business and social gatherings. That beautiful mural you saw coming into town on Highway 281 was painted in 1985 by Judy Krysl of Atkinson.
There have been some other changes in the downtown. In 1988 both the M & M Bakery, established in 1911, and Coyne Hardware, started in 1924, closed their doors. Since then new businesses have emerged. The owners, with their hopes and dreams for the future, are now adding to the "new look" of O'Neill's downtown. On Sundays, as we enter one of the many churches, we pray for continued good fortune and prosperity for our town, and for the good citizens who live in and around our town, O'Neill.
By Dorothy Sanders, 530 E. Fremont, O'Neill, NE 68763
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: A Piece of Emerald, 1874-1974 , 1974; Before Today -- A History of Holt County , by Nellie Snyder Yost, 1976; The Past is Prologue Centennial Souvenir Edition, 1984; and First National Bank of O'Neill, "A Century of Service."