McHenry Avenue is one of the most traveled thoroughfares in the Modesto area, with 78,000 cars crossing at McHenry and Briggsmore avenues every day.
One end of the street begins at Five Points, which is the junction of Needham Street, McHenry and Downey avenues, and 17th and J streets. According to city statistics, Five Points is navigated by 41,000 cars each day.
The other end of McHenry is in Escalon.
In the old days, McHenry Road began at the McHenrys' Bald Eagle Ranch, near the Stanislaus River, and ended near today's Crawford Road. A large chunk of concrete remains by the side of the road. It was one of the cement supports for a large sign that proclaimed Bald Eagle Ranch.
So, who were the McHenrys and were they really so important that they merit all of this remembrance?
Robert McHenry was born in 1827 in Vermont, of Scottish ancestry. Although reports differ, it is known that he lived in Ohio, moved to Mississippi or Louisiana, likely fought in the Mexican-American War, and migrated to California via the Isthmus of Panama. He arrived in California ahead of the forty-niners and tried mining, reputedly near Chinese Camp.
Research indicates that he did "teaming" (freighting) out of Stockton before acquiring more than 2,000 acres along the Stanislaus River. By the early 1850s, Robert had a thriving farm. He planted wheat, which became as good as gold in that era.
It was during this period that he was elected to public office, serving on the second Board of Supervisors in 1856. This required long trips from his ranch to the county seat at LaGrange to attend meetings, traveling by horse or by horse and carriage.
Meanwhile, in 1853, 14-year-old Matilda Hewitt, with her parents and six siblings, journeyed by two oxen-pulled wagons across the Plains from Steubenville, Ohio, to Farmington.
Arriving in October, their harrowing trip resulted in the deaths of a 3-year-old child and, later, of an adult daughter.
Robert McHenry married Matilda Hewitt in 1859, and they settled on his farm, where their only child, Oramil, was born in 1861.
Robert became cashier for Modesto Bank in 1879, necessitating six-mile trips from the ranch into town, probably by horseback on the narrow, rutted and often muddy McHenry Road.
He continued his long fight for irrigation, and, after the McHenrys moved into their new 15th Street home (today's McHenry Mansion) in 1883, he participated in many civic activities. He served on city committees, school boards and the Board of Trade. He and Matilda co-founded First Presbyteri-an Church in 1880.
In 1884, he founded Modesto's First National Bank and became its president. He became president of the first Modesto Irrigation District board of directors in 1887. He financed the building of the Turlock Irrigation System before he died of a stroke in 1890.
Robert's son, Oramil, inherited his father's ranch, business enterprises and business skills. He expanded Bald Eagle Ranch into a model farming operation, famous statewide for its many buildings, meat markets, box factories and drying houses, a and more.
Oramil's greatest achievement probably was his role in establishing this area's irrigation system, on which he "spent money with a lavish hand" and proved himself "a masterful leader in a great enterprise" said the Stanislaus News, concluding:
"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."
Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.