Colonel James Mastin Neal, born in 1845, was the fifth generation of his family to live in Danville. He was the son of Thomas D. Neal, a pioneer in city’s warehouse system of tobacco trade.
In 1861, while attending the Cedar Grove Academy in Pittsylvania County, J. M. Neal enlisted at the age of 16 in Company B of the 18th Virginia Infantry. He served on General Pickett’s staff at the battles of Manassas, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and the Seven Days before Richmond. In 1863, while convalescing from injuries in a fall from a horse, he attended the Virginia Military Institute. He then served in the battle at Sailor’s Creek where he was captured by troops of General Custer. He was released on June 12, 1865.
After a brief stint in the tobacco business in New York, he returned to Danville in 1866 to marry the local Rose P. Allen. They had two children – son Orin Allen Neal and daughter Percy Stokes Neal.
In 1869, he founded the Planters Warehouse. In the 1880s, he constructed his fine home on Main Street opposite Jefferson Avenue. It was later that Jefferson Avenue was extended north of Main Street and Col. Neal’s home was numbered as 802 Main.
President Grover Cleveland appointed Neal as postmaster of the city in 1894, where he served for four years. After that, Col. Neal became an insurance and real estate agent with offices at 535 Main Street. His business barely survived a fire when the adjoining Holland Building was destroyed in 1897.
Neal was active in many businesses, in politics, in the Odd Fellows, and in his church. He was president of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also a director of the Danville and Western Railroad, and later a director of the local branch of the Southern Railway.
He served on the city council for twelve years. In 1886, he assisted in the formation of the Danville Academy of Music (a.k.a. the Danville Opera House). In 1887, he led the improvements to the city’s water works and sewerage system. And in 1899, he was chairman of Council’s committee on streets and bridges. That committee awarded the contract for laying the first brick pavement on Main Street from Floyd Street to Mount Vernon Church.
He was a founder of the Danville Tobacco Fair. This annual event helped to establish Danville as the world’s best tobacco market. It drew crowds to the city including tobacco growers, manufacturers, and dealers as well as the general public.
For more than 20 years, Neal was also a vestryman in the Epiphany Episcopal Church. He was most active in the building of the new (present) sanctuary catty-corner from his Main Street home.
Col. James M. Neal died of heart trouble in July 1907 at the General Hospital then located on Jefferson Avenue. At the time of his death, he was Assistant Inspector General of the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia. He was 62 years of age.