LIMA — When Dr. William McHenry arrived in Lima on horseback late on a May afternoon in 1834 he found a sparsely settled area where, according to an 1885 Allen County history, the many pools of stagnant water filled with decaying vegetation were “perfect breeders of disease, especially malaria.”
McHenry also quickly found a wife, who he eventually moved into a house on a low hill in the midst of an orchard planted by Johnny Appleseed. McHenry, the city’s second doctor, went on to help found the county medical society, become part of the city’s first government and grow rich through land sales, all while the town grew into a city around him.
In 1890, the year McHenry died, the Metropolitan Block opened — and still stands — on the site of McHenry’s house among the apple trees on the northeast corner of Main and North streets. McHenry the previous year had sold the property and had his house moved to the next lot to the east.
“In the early days, the deceased’s professional influence was almost unlimited and it is said of him that at that time no one was willing to die, or have any of their friends do so till they had been examined by Dr. McHenry, in the belief that if mortal power could save them, he could do it,” Lima’s Daily Times wrote when McHenry died on Aug. 19, 1890. The doctor, the Times added, was “one of the wealthiest and most intellectual citizens of Lima.”
McHenry started life in far humbler circumstances. Born May 31, 1812, in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, and “orphaned soon after birth, he went to live with an aunt,” Dr. Donald W. English wrote in a 1984 book, “Behind the Gauze Curtain,” on the Lima area’s medical history. “His formal schooling was insignificant, but William took it upon himself to acquire sufficient additional knowledge to qualify for a medical apprenticeship.”
“So great was his desire to save money to acquire an education in medicine that he kept cardboard tacked on the soles of his shoes to save the long hours’ wear on the leather,” the Allen County Historical Society’s publication, The Reporter, wrote in January 1944. “He afterwards taught school in Xenia and, outside school hours, studied medicine in the office of Dr. Joshua Martin. He then attended lectures in Lexington, Kentucky, and later took one course of lectures in Philadelphia under Dr. Rush.”
Armed with this medical education, he moved to Lima, which had been platted just three years earlier, meeting Malvina Tompkins, the sister of storekeeper Daniel D. Tompkins, on the day he arrived. Dr. McHenry quickly settled in, opening an office on the southeast corner of Main and Market streets and, in December 1835, marrying Malvina Tompkins. Dr. McHenry joined Dr. William Cunningham, who had settled in Lima in 1832, as the county’s medical community.
The couples’ honeymoon, according to the Reporter article, consisted of a trip to Xenia — on one horse. “Upon their return to Lima the McHenrys started housekeeping, in a little house, which stood west of the square on Market Street … ” The McHenrys would have nine children, only five of whom survived to adulthood.
More than a decade after Lima had been laid out and seven years after Dr. McHenry rode in, a town government was organized for Lima, which until that time had been under the county. McHenry was named recorder.
In May 1845, Dr. McHenry was able to record his $600 purchase of 38 acres of land bounded on the west by Main Street, on the south by North Street, on the east by Pine Street and on the north by what would become railroad right of way. “Right after the purchase of the land,” The Recorder noted in 1944, “the McHenrys built a new brick home and they chose for its location, that part which bordered the corner of North and Main streets. Here was the remains of the apple orchard that had been planted some years earlier by the benefactor of Ohio’s early settlers, Johnny Appleseed.”
The lot, “seven or eight steps” above street level, was enclosed by a stone wall topped with hewn logs, according to the article, which added that “as years went by, here sat the ‘Saturday nighters,’ eating peanuts and scattering the shells over the yard, much to Mrs. McHenry’s exasperation.”
Eight years after purchasing the land, Dr. McHenry had it surveyed and divided into lots and, after donating a 50-foot right-of-way along the north side for the construction of the Ohio and Indiana Railroad, began to parlay the land into wealth. “As the city has developed,” the Daily Times noted in Dr. McHenry’s obituary, “this investment has made the doctor one of the wealthiest men in Lima.”
At his core, though, McHenry was a doctor. “The lot of the pioneer doctor was as hard a one as could be found,” the county history noted. “Dr. McHenry manfully met all demands upon his patience and skill, making himself at the same time, the friend of all his patrons. In addition to his regular practice, he had almost all the cases of surgery within a radius of 20 miles for 10 years or more.”
His onetime partner, Dr. W.H. Harper, who shared an office with Dr. McHenry on the west side of the square in 1852, recalled in a May 19, 1897, story in the Lima Times-Democrat, that “prescriptions were never written and medicines were carried in saddlebags.”
In his book on the area’s medical history, Dr. English wrote that Dr. McHenry, in 1843, was hired by the builders of the Miami and Erie Canal to visit Delphos twice a week to check on a canal work crew. McHenry received $20 a week for the work, which, with travel to and from the work site, consumed two full days, English wrote, adding, “When the Civil War broke out, it was Dr. McHenry who not only suggested but persuaded the practitioners of Allen County to care for the families of all service men free of charge.” After the war, in 1866, Dr. McHenry was praised for his efforts during a cholera outbreak. In May 1867, Dr. McHenry became the first president of the Allen County Medical Society.
By the time Dr. McHenry sold his lot at North and Main streets to J.S. Ohler in January 1889 for construction of the Metropolitan Block, he was long retired, living in the shadow of the Metropolitan Block. Both Dr. McHenry and his wife, who died in November 1892, are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.