McHenry family influential in Modesto's development

columns@modbee.comMay 4, 2013 

— They were the outstanding people in our community, the ones who made a difference. They were the go-getters who ran for city and county offices, served on governing boards and became the leaders. They were people whose actions influenced others and who often then became their followers.

Almost everyone knew them, or at least knew all about them. They were the founders of the local men's clubs and of the women's organizations. Their names were frequently printed in the local newspapers, sometimes including an interview because their opinions were considered important. They were the promoters who organized charitable campaigns that raised large sums of money for worthy causes.

So, in the good old days, who were these exceptional people, and what do we know about them?

An appropriate beginning for this project is with an avenue, a thoroughfare named for one of our earliest movers. He was Robert McHenry, who is still remembered for his many civic contributions.

So, who was he, what did he do and when, why and where did he do it?

Robert lived more than a century ago, yet he has never been forgotten. Thousands of cars travel every day on his namesake thoroughfare, McHenry Avenue.

Born in Vermont in 1827, he immigrated to California, arriving before 1849. He did some mining, reputedly at Chinese Camp, and teamed (freighted) out of Stockton before acquiring more than 2,000 acres of land along the Stanislaus River.

By the early 1850s, Robert had a thriving farm in the area of the bridge where McHenry Avenue crosses the river. A text on the history of Central California described him as one of the early settlers who had "well kept places on the river banks of the Stanislaus."

It was during this period that he was first elected to public office, on the second Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in 1856.

Meanwhile, 14-year-old Matilda Hewitt and her family journeyed by two oxen-pulled wagons across the plains from Steubenville, Ohio, to Farmington in San Joaquin County, arriving in October 1853. Their trip was traumatic, resulting in the deaths of their 3-year-old child and, much later, an adult daughter.

After Matilda married Robert McHenry in 1859, they settled on his farm, where their only child, Oramil, was born in 1861. In 1879, Robert became cashier for the Modesto Bank while continuing his fight for irrigation and serving on city committees, school boards and the Board of Trade. He also was a co-founder (with Matilda) of the First Presbyterian Church in 1879-80. He founded the First National Bank in 1884, became president of the first Modesto Irrigation District board in 1887 and financed the building of the Turlock Irrigation District irrigation system before he died in 1890.

Oramil McHenry inherited not only his father's ranch and banking interests, but also his business skills. Oramil expanded the McHenrys' Bald Eagle Ranch into a model farming operation, famous statewide for its many farm buildings, which included meat markets, shops, box factories, drying houses and more.

But Oramil's greatest achievement undoubtedly was his leadership role in establishing this area's first irrigation system. His death from cancer in 1906, at age 44, elicited the newspaper statement, "Of the men who made their influence felt in the developing and upbuilding of Stanislaus County, none accomplished more than did the late Robert McHenry and his son, Oramil."

Thus, the McHenrys collectively rank as No. 1 on our list of early-day "movers and shakers."

Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to columns@modbee.com.

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