By the time Robert McHenry purchased 2,640 acres of land along the Stanislaus River in 1852, he already had led an exciting, full life.
Born in 1827 in Vermont, he had fought in the Mexican American War and had emigrated 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 wheat farmer.
His property, later called the Bald Eagle Ranch, was just south of the Stanislaus River, near today's McHenry Avenue. A text on the early history of Central California describes Robert McHenry as one of the early settlers who had "well kept places" on the riverbanks of the Stanislaus. 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. This required long trips from his farm to attend meetings at the county seat of La Grange, traveling by horse or horse-drawn carriage.
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At the time, the town 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, stagecoach drivers and other travelers. It had several small hotels, stores, saloons, blacksmiths, a meat market and more.
It also had Matilda Margaret Hewitt, 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.
McHenry continued to prosper and became the cashier -- the chief administrative officer -- for the newly formed Modesto Bank. This necessitated a commute, probably on horseback, from his ranch to the bank on Ninth Street, which may have contributed to his decision to build a house in town.
In 1880, McHenry started buying property for a home on the corner of 15th and I Streets. 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 1,693. The land was just a block from the First Presbyterian Church at 14th and I Streets, which the McHenrys were instrumental in building in 1881.
The architect and builder of the new house was Jeremiah Robinson of Stockton. 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.
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 included hot water for the bathrooms provided by 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 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 even benches for comfortable sitting while enjoying the view. Children loved the cupola. Merl McHenry, son of Oramil, confessed that as a child, he liked to climb up the cupola stairs and crawl out onto the roof when his mother wasn't looking.
Matilda McHenry's niece, Ruth Hewitt, also visited as a teenager, and 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.
More about the McHenrys and their mansion is in Bare's book "The McHenry Mansion, Modesto's Heritage."
Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at email@example.com.