Alice Sliger, whose name is synonymous with the Buckhorn Mineral Wells and Wildlife Museum in east Mesa for decades and played a role in luring baseball teams to Arizona for spring training, died Tuesday.
Sliger was 103 and living in a nursing home near her former business. She had fallen and suffered fractured vertebrae in her back that were surgically repaired about a year ago, close friends said.
Sliger, who was known for her "remarkable" memory and detailed stories from years ago, had somewhat bounced back from the back injury, and was still able to walk up to a week before her passing. She was alert and talking with visitors as recently as Sunday, before her health declined.
Sliger died about 12:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Mi Casa Nursing Center in Mesa, where she had been living for about the last six months after spending 75 years at the Buckhorn property, said Jack Burns, a family friend.
She had married Ted Sliger in 1935, four years before the buildings were constructed and they opened the mineral baths, Burns said.
"She didn't want to leave the Buckhorn," Burns said. "She said she wanted to stay until she was 105."
In the mid-1960s, the Sligers had a staff of about 25 employees at the Buckhorn. Sliger opened the famed museum at 5900 E. Main Street with her taxidermist husband, Ted, in 1939. Although The Buckhorn Baths, as it also was called, had been closed since 1999, 25 years after Ted Sliger died, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 after years of efforts spearheaded by Ron Peters, a family friend who serves on Mesa's historic preservation board.
"She was a special kind of lady," he told the Tribune on Wednesday. "She was a neat lady."
"For her age, she was spry," said Lisa Anderson, the director of the Mesa Historical Museum. Anderson had worked closely with Sliger as the museum was organizing "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience," an exhibit that opened in 2009. "Her memory was remarkable and she was sharp as a tack. She could tell you details about people who visited the Buckhorn 60 years ago.
"The Sligers provided a unique service to the community and they knew the role they would play in Mesa history and Cactus League history. She had a great fondness for Giants players, the owner Horace Stoneham, and said her favorite player of all-time was Gaylord Perry. She didn't treat anyone like a celebrity, they were part of the family."
Sliger lived on her property until about six months ago, said Robert Brinton, immediate past president of the Cactus League and a longtime friend of hers. He visited her at a nursing home six months ago and said that while her body was failing her, Sliger loved reminiscing about the Buckhorn's early days.
"Her mind was just as sharp as could be," Brinton said. "She could recall information just as well as she ever could."
Sliger was one of the first friends Brinton reconnected with after he left Arizona but returned in 1987, he said. Brinton met her at the still-operating Buckhorn and briefly considered getting the same treatment that so many baseball legends had.
"The only thing I regret is that at that time she had baths and massages for $35, and I never did get that final bath and massage in before they closed the place down," Brinton said.
Peters spent a lot of time with Sliger over the last eight years as he conducted research on the Buckhorn and its historical significance to the region and nationally. The business once featured 27 stone tubs, 15 adobe-style travel cottages with carports and a wildlife museum displaying 450 animals including many species that no longer are in Arizona. The Sligers also lived in a house on the property.
Because of the supposed healing powers of the mineral springs running under at least 10 acres of the complex on the northwest corner of Main Street and Recker Road, the Sligers also touted the Buckhorn as the place "that sealed the deal" for luring the New York Giants to Arizona for spring training in 1947 - 11 years before former Giants owner Stoneham moved the team to San Francisco. A long line of baseball players for nearly the next six decades had mineral baths and massages there. The players who once were at the Buckhorn included Hall of Famers such as Ty Cobb after his playing days, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Gaylord Perry.
Perry, who lives in North Carolina, said that he had a lot of fond memories of staying at the Buckhorn and had first been invited there with a group of Giants players in the early 1960s.
"She always had a welcome smile on her face and would always talk about the events of the day," Perry, 72, said. "She really loved the place. We hope that someone is able to restore it. They started that business when nothing was out there."
Local history preservationists have talked about possibly turning the property into a complex of baseball fields and a history center.
"Alice definitely was a part of Mesa's history and Arizona's history," Peters said. "There was so much that the Buckhorn was to the community. It used to be a Greyhound bus station, a post office and there was a nine-hole sand golf course there. When more people began traveling by car, when they were building the main building and the small guest units or motel rooms, Alice told stories about how Ted started using bricks from Mesa's first schoolhouse and when cowboys passed through town who needed room and board, Ted Sliger would let them stay if they helped construct other buildings.
"When I started asking her about the historical significance of the property, she had never really thought about it," Peters added. "She more or less was loyal to Ted's connection to the place and the wildlife museum."
The Buckhorn also houses one of the best collections of metates in the Southwest. Metates are Native American grinding stones that are cemented around mortar into the walls of the various buildings of the complex, according to Peters.
A Mesa native who graduated from the then-Arizona State Teacher's College (now Arizona State University) in 1927, Sliger initially was a schoolteacher who first taught in Sasabe schools in the late 1920s before teaching at Mesa's Alma School from 1930-1935.
In 2007 - the 80th anniversary of her college graduation - Sliger was recognized as the ASU teaching college's oldest alumnus, Peters said.
Sliger also made important contributions to Mesa's Historical Museum. When she donated several vintage photographs and artifacts from the Buckhorn to the Play Ball exhibit, Perry was in many of the photos.
Sliger was in attendance for dedication receptions for the Play Ball exhibit last year and in February at the Arizona Museum for Youth.
When the grand opening reception was held for the exhibit in 2009, Gaylord Perry attended and was reunited with Sliger after many years.
"It was a special moment," said Robert Johnson, a political consultant for and project leader for the Play Ball exhibit.
Johnson took many photos of Sliger and Perry looking at the pictures that chronicled the history of the Buckhorn.
"She was an amazing person for her age," Johnson said. "It was hard to tell that she was more than 100 years old. When she looked at the old pictures, she knew the names and the stories. It was really a nice moment. There were other players in the pictures, but it seemed like they didn't exist. She just talked about Gaylord Perry. When she saw Gaylord, everything she had once knew, came rushing back."
Sliger is survived by one son, Ted N. Sliger. "She was a great lady and everyone loved her," he said.
Funeral services for Alice Sliger will be 10 a.m. Monday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5350 E. McClellan Road, Mesa. Viewing will be at 9 a.m.
Staff writer Garin Groff contributed to this report.