Portraits From the Past

A glimpse into the life of Anna Box Neal, a prominent African American from Tucson.

The earliest photograph of Anna Box in the files of the Arizona Historical Society shows a caramel-skinned girl of about 10.

She is wearing a dazzling white, lacy first communion dress and shiny black pumps while holding what appears to be a Bible in her gloved hands.

A few years before that circa-1880 picture was snapped, Anna had moved to Tucson with her parents. Her father was a gambler, reportedly of English/African-American descent. Anna's mother ran a boardinghouse and was part African-American, part Cherokee Indian.

The girl developed a taste for writing music and playing the piano while enrolled at the St. Joseph Academy, next to the original San Augustine's cathedral downtown. But due to poor health, she had dropped out of the school by age 14.

The second photo is of a young woman, perhaps 18, in a velvety dark dress and double strand of pearls. She is wearing sparkling earrings, and her deep black hair is tightly combed.

At 16, Anna is said to have married a soldier stationed at Fort Lowell, but the marriage didn't last. A few years later, on Jan. 4, 1892, at the Cathedral, she wed William Neal, a prominent local businessman.

Neal was born in Oklahoma in 1849 and was more than 20 years older than his new bride. Like his mother-in-law, Neal's father was an African-American, his mother a Cherokee Indian.

As a teenager, Neal worked for "Buffalo" Bill Cody as a scout and servant. He later moved to Tucson where his first job was a restaurant cook, earning a salary of $40 a month plus room and board. He then started a basement-digging business and later opened a stable and began hauling freight. In 1885, Neal obtained a contract to carry the mail north between Tucson and the mining town of Mammoth, something he would do for the next 42 years.

When Anna's mother died two years after her marriage to Neal, she was devastated. Her husband decided to build a hotel in Oracle that she could manage. The 160-acre site was in a very sparsely populated area 40 miles from Tucson, but it was served by a daily stage coach line.

The result of Neal's decision was the 12-room Mountain View Hotel, which cost $90,000 to complete and opened in 1895. The Arizona Daily Star wrote of the establishment, "Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Neal have spared neither pains nor expense in making this the most attractive hostelry in Arizona."

The two-story structure had wrap-around verandahs on both floors, and every room had hot and cold water along with a fireplace or stove. The price of a room was $2.50 a night, or $12.50 per week.

To entertain the guests there was a piano, billiard table and bicycles and burros for rent. There was also a wine cellar, croquet court and dance pavilion, and Anna grew her own vegetables to serve at meals.

While his wife operated the hotel and looked after the upbringing of her much younger sister, Neal would deliver the mail and other things at stops north of Oracle. This and his other business interests were making him wealthy, but people said of Neal, "his word was always good" and "he was an honest man."

Once a month, he would also haul gold bullion in a buckboard from Mammoth to Tucson, and on some of these trips would take his wife with him. To provide protection from bandits, she had a long-rifle at the ready, and was said to be an excellent shot.

A woman about 35 is shown standing in a garden in the third portrait. She has on an ankle length dark skirt and a billowy white blouse with a starched collar.

The Mountain View prospered, in part because it catered to clients with tuberculosis and in part because of its dignified hostess. But Anna Neal wasn't averse to mixing it up with the cowboys that her husband employed to watch over his herd of thousands of cattle along with hundreds of goats and hogs.

On July 4, 1906, after setting off fireworks, some of the hands got drunk and started to fight in the hotel's kitchen. Anna heard the commotion and threw herself right into the middle of it, receiving a bloody nose as a reward.

By about this time, Cody had become a frequent visitor at the hotel, along with other nationally famous celebrities, including author Harold Bell Wright. They came for the hospitality, the beautiful climate and the isolation.

Holding a long rifle, an elderly woman wearing a bandanna on her head sits in a woven wicker wheelchair in the final photo. Next to her is a huge Indian basket topped by a clay jar that reads, "Oracle."

Electrical power finally reached the tiny community in 1935, and William Neal died the next year at the age of 87. Two years later, Anna sold the hotel but continued to manage it.

In her old age, she would talk to reporters, telling them tales from the era before statehood and the automobile. There were stories of "Buffalo Bill," and hauling gold by buckboard to Tucson.

Upon her death in 1950 at 80, it would be said simply of Anna Box Neal: She was "soft spoken and well educated."

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