Seventy-five years later, one of Merced's unsolved mysteries received a mention in The Bee's "Yesteryears." That might have triggered some sad memories for anyone in Merced who still recalls the Huffman Mansion fire of Jan. 11, 1933.
The feature, which appeared Jan. 12 on Page B-1, noted that "More than 2,500 residents of Merced gathered at Bear Creek to witness the most spectacular fire seen in Merced in years. They saw the famous old Huffman Mansion, a landmark for nearly half a century and the largest residence in the city, burn to the ground."
But that tells only a small part of a fascinating story. The destruction of the historic home was especially dramatic. Instead of trying to save the house, the fire department stood by and watched it burn.
Charles Henry Huffman, whose wife's sister was Matilda McHenry of Modesto, built the Merced home in 1883. In the same period, Matilda's husband, Robert McHenry, built what today is Modesto's McHenry Mansion. From the front, these two mansions looked remarkably alike, differing mostly in back, where the large Huffman ranch had additional buildings.
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The architect-builder of the McHenry home was Jeremiah Robinson of Stockton, who also had built the 1873 Stanislaus County Courthouse in Modesto. McHenry and Huffman were close friends, so they didn't mind sharing house plans.
Huffman, an adventurer and entrepreneur considered the founder of Merced and the "wheat king" of the Central Valley, designed and built the Merced irrigation system in 1888. That project, financed by railroad tycoon Charles Crocker, became the Crocker Huffman Land & Water Co.
When Huffman moved to San Francisco in 1893, he sold his Merced home and land holdings to Crocker interests. The house then was occupied by a series of Crocker-Huffman Co. superintendents and their families. The last one to live in the house was L.D. Van Horne, who purchased it from the company before his death in 1926. His wife inherited the house but soon moved to Santa Barbara, leaving it vacant except for a caretaker.
This set the stage for the disaster.
Huffman's son, Walt, lived in Merced not far from the big house. He frequently dropped by to check on it, as he did on that fateful January day. The home, empty for several years and listed for sale, had only one occupant -- caretaker Nick Bispo. Walt Huffman later remembered that he had smelled kerosene during his brief visit.
About 6 p.m., the house caught fire and, reported the newspapers, "within half an hour was a blazing pillar." Bispo said he saw billows of smoke emerging from between the walls, directly under the cupola.
Though the fire department was called, no attempt was made to rescue the house because it was just outside the city limit. The volunteer department could not go beyond those limits without endangering its insurance. The fire equipment was there to protect Mercy Hospital across Bear Creek, about 300 feet from the house and within the city limit. The home was insured for $30,000.
The Huffman home site was purchased by attorney C. Ray Robinson, where he built a large colonial-style home that still stands. The only remnants of the original house are the fence and the palm trees.
Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at email@example.com.