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Isabella Greenway 1886-1953 Arizona's First Congresswoman Builder Arizona Inn

Updated on August 11, 2015
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I've lived in Arizona for 65 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, collectibles, and travel.

Biography of Isabella Greenway

Isabella Greenway, An Enterprising Woman, Biography by Kristie Miller
Isabella Greenway, An Enterprising Woman, Biography by Kristie Miller | Source

Isabella's Early Life

I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Isabella Greenway was, as I grew up in Tucson, Arizona just a few blocks from the Arizona Inn and Isabella's Home. Whenever, we'd ride past, my mother would say with awe," Isabella Greenway built that hotel and one time the Duke and Dutchess of Winsor stayed there." Over time, I heard bits of her life and accomplishments, but it wasn't until 2002 when a group from my Questers chapter decided to develop a program based upon eight of Arizona's most famous women, that I really became interested in the details of Isabella's life. The more I have learned about Isabella, the more my esteem for her has grown.

Isabella Selmes was born on March 22, 1886 in Boone County Kentucky to Tilden and Martha (Patty) Selmes. Her early childhood was spent on their ranch near Mandan in the Dakotas. Ranching was difficult and the cold and isolation was hard on the young family. Much has been made of the fact that Isabella had a mammy as had been the custom in Patty Selmes Kentucky family. One bright spot of their time on the cattle ranch was their neighbor Teddy Roosevelt with whom the family would form a lifelong friendship. When Tilden's health became critical the family moved back to Patty's family farm in Kentucky where he died in 1895. Isabella and Mammy were sent to St. Paul for her "schooling." Patty stayed behind at the farm where she worked to process hams.

Her uncle Frank Cutcheon and aunt Julia (Patty's) sister would treat Isabella as a daughter and would have a great influence on Isabella's life. Isabella was finishing her schooling in New York and met Eleanor Roosevelt. Their friendship would last a lifetime. Both were young socialites, facing their proper "coming out" into formal society which meant teas, dinners and dances to meet a suitable husband. When Eleanor married Franklin, Isabella was one of Eleanor's bridesmaids, and the favor would be returned when Isabella married Major Robert Ferguson who had been a business partner and former "Rough Rider" with Teddy Roosevelt. After a honeymoon to Scotland and settling down in New York, Rober's health began failing from tuberculosis and his doctor urged them to move to a drier climate. The Ferguson family now included a son Robert and a daughter Martha, and the decision was made to move to Burro Mountain just north of Silver City New Mexico.

Life was primitive while they were building their home which would be a 4,000 sq ft. Spanish style built of adobe bricks which were molded on site. Maj Ferguson loved horticulture and planned and planted the landscaping. Isabella's life as a politician was beginning. when Isabella began taking an interest in local and national politics. A frequent visitor to their home was John Greenway, another former Rough Rider and friend of Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor and Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt also visited.. John fell in love with Isabella and made no secret of his feelings for her, and while Isabella minded her wedding vows, she and John exchanged letters. When Freguson passed away, Isabella married John Greenway and their union was one of happiness and passion. They divided their time between Bisbee and Ajo Arizona because of John's interests in the copper mines. A son, John Jr completed their happiness.

Arizona Inn Photo

Photo of Isabella that hangs in the library at Arizona Inn
Photo of Isabella that hangs in the library at Arizona Inn | Source

Isabella's Accomplishments

The Greenway's built a home in Ajo, and there was talk of John Greenway for Arizona's governor on the Democratic ticket. When John began complaining of stomach trouble, an operation was advised. A week later John Greenway unexpectedly died, and Isabella suffered a miscarriage. John Greenway is buried on a hill in Ajo above the mines which is fitting since he was active in promoting a new profitable way to leech copper from ore. They had two glorious honeymoon years together and Isabella always called John the love of her life.

Isabella who had two veterans for husbands began visiting the Veterans Hospital in Tucson where she began a work project for disabled veterans that included furniture, leather items, cactus item and a few toys. This project, The Arizona Hut, corresponded to the Val-Kill furniture venture that Eleanor had started. Also, during this period, Isabella who couldn't bear to stay in Ajo, bought the Double X Ranch near Williams in Northern Arizona, which her son Robert was going to help her run. Isabella was named Arizona's Democratic national committeewoman in 1928, and there was talk of running Isabella for governor, but she realized that to organize the Democratic vote in Arizona was enough and this is the venue where she focused her energy.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression signaled the end of the furniture Hut orders and Isabela had a lot of left over furniture. This was turned to advantage when Isabella began a resort hotel for the wealthy on a piece of property that she owned in Tucson near the University of Arizona. She was able to build the hotel named The Arizona Inn in a three month period. The beautiful setting, Isabella's strict rules of privacy and upscale service remains today. The famous of the day all came to stay, and they still do. Isabella was now dividing her time between her enterprises and her political committees. Isabella worked hard to see Franklin Roosevelt elected president in 1932. When Roosevelt was elected he appointed Lewis Douglas, Arizona's only congressman to his cabinet and Isabella ran for the vacated "seat" and won. By then, Isabella was well versed in the political process, but she also had great knowledge of the copper industry in Arizona, she had considerable knowledge of Veterans affairs, Arizonas's water rights, and a knowledge of how many of Arizona's Indians were unemployed. Isabella became Arizona's first congresswoman.

As Arizona's congresswoman, Isabella had access to President Franklin and First Lady Eleanor. She didn't always agree with Franklin, but her tireless efforts to get a share of the New Deal monies for unemployed miners (CCC and WPA projects) Snowbowl and forestry projects in Northern Arizona, Organ Pipe National Monument, tarrifs on copper, CCC monies for the Grand Canyon trails, the Salt River Project, and the Howard Wheeler (Indian Bill). She cited family interests as the reason for not seeking a second term. Projects included visits and a refurbishing of her Ajo and Santa Barbara homes.

Isabella would marry a last time in a family only wedding to Harry O King in 1939. It's interesting to note that she wore Harry's wedding ring over John Greeway's wedding ring. On December 14, 1952, Isabella died in her Tucson home from heart failure. Isabella's children continued to live in Tucson in the winters and spent time at the Double X Ranch during the summers.

It would not be until the 1990s that Arizona would elect Karen English another female congresswoman.


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    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 6 years ago

      Thanks for your kind comments. Limited space here, but so much more that could have been praised about Isabella Greenway

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 6 years ago from Texas

      This was an interesting and informative read...all the way through. Thanks for sharing it. WB

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 6 years ago from California Gold Country

      I enjoyed this. She certainly led an interesting life.