Considering Matilda McHenry's somewhat reserved, unassuming demeanor, her volunteer role as a New Year's Day hostess for four consecutive years must have seemed surprising. Perhaps even more unexpected was her husband's active participation in these events.
This happened in the era of 1884 to 1887, and her husband of some 20 years was wealthy rancher Robert McHenry. He was a wheat farmer during a period of worldwide wheat shortages, a calamity that lasted for more than 20 years. Caused by crop failures in Europe and South America and by the Civil War in the United States, one result of this crisis was the inflation of the price of wheat.
Local farmers responded by planting wheat fields that stretched for miles in Stanislaus County, ultimately contributing to California becoming the largest wheat-producing state.
Bee readers have asked questions about the apparent wealth of some early residents who built impressively big, luxurious houses in the 1880s and '90s. Examples were several homes erected on 15th and 16th streets, such as the Robert McHenry 1883 mansion and the Italianate style home owned by attorney-farmer William Turner. That building stood on the 16th street site of today's First United Methodist Church, until the original Turner house burned down in 1922.
Another handsome home in the same area was built by farmer Henry Voight. Raised in the Modesto area and educated in local schools, he joined his father in farming, ultimately cultivating countless acres of grain.
One of the most imposing structures in downtown Modesto was the Queen Anne Victorian built by Willis Bledsoe on 16th and I streets. Completed in 1885, it was later replaced by the Shannon Funeral Chapel and then by the Damrell office building.
Bledsoe's history is especially interesting. Born in Kentucky in 1841, he immigrated across the plains in 1862. He traveled with a train of wagons pulled by teams of oxen, a journey lasting 61 days. Like McHenry, Bledsoe had tried mining before eventually buying farmland.
He purchased 4,480 acres and planted wheat. His efforts were met with exceptional success, providing him with the means by which to build his striking home.
However, by 1885, Modesto village had remarkably changed. As it became prosperous, the wealth reaped from the huge wheat crops began to attract what was called the "saloon crowd." Soon, at least 15 saloons were downtown, not counting those in hotels. Described as being "wide open," the quiet little community now had gambling and dance halls, with houses of prostitution intermingled with the homes and businesses.
It was in this setting that Matilda McHenry opened her new home to the entire community for a New Year's Day open house in 1884. Husband Robert also participated in the event. Refreshments were served and entertainment was provided.
Matilda's annual New Year's Day celebrations were held three more times in 1885, 1886 and 1887 until Robert became severely ill from a stroke in 1888.
However, years later, on New Year's Day of 1903, history repeated itself. Then, Myrtie McHenry, the wife of second- generation Oramil McHenry, and her sister Letty Conneau, hosted a New Year's Day afternoon celebration at the McHenry Mansion attended by 90 people. The home was decorated with cut flowers, and the featured entertainment was the playing of games of the day such as euchre, hearts, pinochle and whist. It was described by the press as "the most elaborate society event of the season."
Now, as we celebrate the beginning of 2013, perhaps we should pause and remember the good old days when Matilda McHenry led the way to paying homage to the arrival of our new years.
Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.