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McHenry Museum: History treasure trove

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McHenry Museum: History treasure trove

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POSTED June 9, 2012 1:23 a.m.

Who was Oramil McHenry? Who was he named after? Where and when was he born? What business did he own where he had the controlling interest but was named after someone else? Where is he buried? Why is his name synonymous with a library?

For the answers to this pop quiz, you need only visit the McHenry Museum in downtown Modesto where the current exhibit features the life and times of Oramil McHenry, “A Nineteenth Century Visionary.”

A lot of people, and not just Modestans or Stanislaus County residents, are familiar with McHenry Avenue, Modesto’s thoroughfare, which runs from the heart of the city’s business downtown district all the way to Escalon where it T-intersects with another high-profile traffic artery – East Highway 120.

The life and times of Oramil McHenry and that of his family including his parents is the subject of the current exhibit now showing inside the McHenry Museum.

A story about the McHenry family and the McHenry Museum, however, is not complete without mentioning the city’s old Modesto Library. Which is why, the exhibit on the Modesto visionary also includes the story of the building. Its construction was made possible by a bequest from Oramil McHenry, who died in 1906, to the City of Modesto. The museum was originally built as the McHenry Library of Modesto. It was built in 1911 at a cost of $22,500 with additional $3,000 used to furnish it. It was dedicated on April 29, 1912. An addition to the building was constructed in 1928 at a cost of $28,000. It remained as a library until 1971.

On July 4, 1972, the old library opened as the McHenry Museum. Many celebratory events are on tap to mark that historic day and to celebrate the century mark of the dedication of the building. Among those public events is a celebration of the grand opening of the Old Library on Saturday, July 28, from 6 to 9 p.m. The free family-friendly event will feature, among many other things, museum docents dressed in period costumes designed to enhance the exhibits. Visitors will be able to meet and chat with a Forty Niner, a stagecoach robber, a blacksmith, as well as the mayor from 1912 and Modesto’s mayor of 2012. There will be plenty of activities for children including a storyteller. Refreshments will be served and no reservation is required. One caveat: all children must be accompanied by an adult.

For questions about the library/museum grand opening celebration, call (209) 577-5235 or send an e-mail to elacoste@modestogov.com.

The Oramil McHenry exhibit is the latest in the museum’s changing exhibit. The rest of the permanent displays is located on the main floor of the museum and downstairs which can be accessed by an elevator.

Among the museum’s recent visitors was the Becerra family. Milka Becerra took advantage of her children’s time off from school by bringing them to the McHenry Museum last week “to learn a little bit of the history of Modesto, and see how times have changed.”

With her were her two older daughters – Danielle, 7, and Monique, 8, who both attend Robinson Road School, and baby Mikayla, 1. The older daughters were particularly fascinated with the 1950s-themed restaurant exhibit downstairs complete with a vintage coin-operated juke box, tables and chairs from that period, plus a black-and-white checkered floor. Red neon lights highlighted the ‘50s atmosphere.

Visitors can enhance their knowledge of the history of both the museum and old library, as well as the general area of Modesto and Stanislaus County by availing themselves to the many reading materials offered for purchase in the museum’s gift shop. Among the book offerings is a heavy coffee-table tome titled, “History of Stanislaus County, California, with Illustrations 1881.” The $75 book is an exact replica of the original volume and was published in conjunction with the 100th-year celebration of the old library/museum. Copies of the book, however, are limited with a few still available in the gift shop.

There are many other books, though, in the gift shop chronicling the history of Modesto and Stanislaus County and its residents. Among them is a book titled, “The Flight of the Hawk Islanders: For the Azorean Portuguese – An Immigrant Story,” by Robert Leroy Santos. Copies of the Stepping Stones magazine of the McHenry Historical Society may also be purchased at the gift shop. If you are a member of the historical society, you receive a copy of this magazine as part of the benefits of your membership. If you are not a member and would like to read the many interesting articles contained in the magazine, you can purchase copies at the gift shop.

The Stepping Stones magazine is part of the area’s history. The first Stepping Stones magazine was published and printed by Richard Belt who owned the now-defunct Belt Printing in Modesto. Today, his daughter, Susan Highiet, is president of the Press and Publications arm of the museum.

McHenry Museum is located at 1402 I Street, corner 14th Street in Modesto, telephone (209) 577-5235, e-mail museum@mchenrymuseum.org. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.  You can also visit the museum’s web site at www.mchenrymuseum.org. 

— ROSE ALBANO RISSO

209 staff reporter

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