BARE: A glimpse of Victorian way of life via the new old McHenry Mansion in Modesto

columns@modbee.comSeptember 7, 2013 

— As preparations continue for the grand re-opening of Modesto's treasured McHenry Mansion, it seems appropriate to take another brief look at the fascinating story of the McHenrys, their lives and the construction of their historic home.

Robert McHenry had already led an interesting and exciting life by the time he purchased 2,640 acres of land along the Stanislaus River in 1852.

Born in 1827 in Vermont, he had fought in the Mexican American War and had immigrated to California via the Isthmus of Panama, ahead of the gold rush. He had done freighting out of Stockton and gold mining at Chinese Camp, before becoming a successful wheat farmer.

His property, later called the Bald Eagle Ranch, was located just south of the river, near today's McHenry Avenue. It was during this period that he was first elected to public office, to serve on the second county Board of Supervisors in 1856, also becoming its chairman. That required long trips from his farm to the county seat at La Grange to attend meetings, traveling by horse or by horse-drawn carriage. Such inconveniences may have motivated him to consider building a house in town.

At that time, the community closest to the McHenry ranch was Farmington, founded in 1848. It was the first stop between Stockton and the Mother Lode and was popular with teamsters, stage coach drivers and other travelers. It had several small hotels, stores, saloons, blacksmiths, a meat market and more.

It was also where Matilda Margaret Hewitt resided. She was originally from Steubenville, Ohio. With her family, she had crossed the plains by wagon in 1852. She and Robert McHenry somehow met, perhaps when he shopped for supplies in Farmington, and they were married in her parents' farmhouse in September 1859. Their only child, named Oramil, was born two years later.

Robert continued to prosper and became the cashier, which was the chief administrative officer for the newly formed Modesto Bank. This necessitated a commute, undoubtedly on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, from his ranch to the bank on Ninth street. That inconvenience may possibly have contributed to his decision to build a house in town.

In 1880, Robert McHenry began buying property for the building of a house on the corner of 15th and I streets in young Modesto. He eventually acquired 10 city lots encompassing an area 250 feet wide by 140 feet deep, on the outskirts of the village. At the time, the town's population was about 1,700, and the location was just a block from First Presbyterian Church at 14th and I streets, which the McHenrys had been instrumental in building in 1881.

The architect-builder of their new home was Jeremiah "Jerry" Robinson of Stockton, who ran advertisements in the local newspapers. He and his brother, Mayhew, had built the first Stanislaus County courthouse in 1873. Situated on the site of the present courthouse, it endured for 85 years, until it was torn down in 1958.

Building a dream house

Construction on the McHenry home began in June 1882, described by the Stanislaus News as "the finest and most costly residence in Stanislaus County." Built with premium exterior redwood siding, it had gas lighting and indoor plumbing from the beginning, with a sophisticated water system that produced hot water for the bathrooms using nickel-plated heaters.

The house was designed in the Victorian Italianate style, with the typical elaborate brackets under the eaves. Its 10,080 square feet of interior space included, on the first floor, two parlors, a library, dining room, kitchen, office and a bathroom, all with 13-foot, 3-inch-high ceilings. The second floor, featuring 12-foot-3-inch ceilings, had a sitting room, six bedrooms and a bathroom.

It had a full basement and attic, the latter topped by the mansion's famous symbol: the eight- windowed octagonal cupola, with a floor and benches for comfortable seating while enjoying the extraordinary view.

Children loved the cupola, and Merl McHenry, who was the son of Oramil, confessed that as a child he liked to climb up the cupola stairs and then crawl out onto the roof when his mother wasn't looking.

Matilda McHenry's niece, Ruth Hewitt, also visited as a teenager, and she reportedly said that she was "thrilled" when she sat in the cupola and could see the countryside for miles.

The McHenry Mansion was continuously occupied by members of the McHenry family for 36 years, spanning three generations from 1883 to 1919.

The first was Robert McHenry, his wife, Matilda, and son Oramil, 1883-1896; then Oramil McHenry and his first wife, Louise, and children, 1896-1901; Oramil with second wife Myrtie and family 1902-1906; widowed Myrtie McHenry and son Merl, 1906-1908; and Myrtie with second husband Judge William Langdon and their two children plus young Merl, 1908-1919. The McHenry period ended in 1919 when the Langdons moved to the Bay Area.

The McHenry story is inspirational, representing another era and the Victorian way of life.

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

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