Matthew Henebery was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, on September 8, 1834 to Nicholas and Anastasia Henebery. He was one of seven children. His father was a farmer, and both father and mother instilled the values of hard work, honesty, and integrity in Matthew and his six siblings. In 1849, when Matthew was 14 years old, the Henebery family was forced to make a life changing decision. The late 1840’s marked a time of great suffering for Ireland- The Great Potato Famine. At the time, a large portion of Ireland’s population was dependent exclusively on the potato for their diet. The famine occurred because a plant disease caused the potato crops to fail for several years in a row. The Irish natives called it an Gorta Mór meaning “the Great Hunger,” it was also referred to as an Drochshaol meaning “the bad life.” Over 1 million people died of starvation and another million (like the Heneberys) fled the country. In 1849, with their backs against the wall due to mass starvation, the proud and spirited Heneberys made the decision to leave their homeland. Although the Henebery family heavily experienced an Gorta Mór (“the great hunger”) they refused to accept an Drochshaol (“the bad life”) and knew it was time to trust the abilities and spirit of the family, and migrate to a promising new land.
The Henebery family landed in Montreal, Canada and journeyed south through Buffalo, New York, then west to Chicago. After a brief stop in LaSalle the family finally found a home in Peoria, Illinois. This is where Matthew Henebery would begin to leave his mark on the world. Taught by his mother and father the importance of hard work, Matthew took a job as a superintendent for a line of drays (carts used to carry heavy loads) and became self-sufficient before his fifteenth birthday. A few years later in 1851, a man named Napolean B. Brandamour took notice of Matthews drive, dedication, and moral fiber and hired him to run errands for his liquor business. Shortly after, they became partners. They created a new firm and built an alcohol distillery, where Matthew Henebery became a very skilled craftsman and distiller. He listened carefully to the demands of the people and created, blended, or rectified product accordingly.
After two profitable years of business the partnership dissolved. Brandamour took the distillery and the 19 year old Matthew acquired the wholesale business, which made him a very wealthy man. He ran it successfully until his death. Matthew Henebery was a prominent and respected member of early Peoria. He was active in many manufacturing, commercial and financial pursuits most of which contributed to the fledgling city’s overall development and progress, as well as his own individual success. His drive and determination helped him to successfully complete whatever he undertook. He used each accomplishment as a starting point for another, and continually built upon his many triumphs. Matthew Henebery’s accomplishments are well documented; here are just a few: he was one of the city’s early alderman, a member of the school board, an organizer/builder of the Great Eastern Distillery, an organizer of the Peoria Stock Yard and the Peoria Packing and Provision Company, he served as president the Peoria Pottery Company and the Peoria Opera House Company, he was the director and vice president of First National Bank; Director of the Peoria Public Library, and he served as the treasurer and a director of the Peoria Gas, Light and Coke Company.
It is clear why he was such a beloved member of the community, but what you won’t read in old newspapers or books is the real reason Matthew Henebery’s legacy will never die. Despite his many successes he remained humble; he walked every step of his exceptional life with integrity and unwavering values. He earned his own way in life through hard work, persistence, and by building genuine and lasting relationships. He accumulated more wealth than any one man needs, while at the same time being the most prominent benefactor in the young city of Peoria. Matthew undoubtedly lived up to his family’s motto: Dare Maximus Virtue, which means “giving is the greatest gift.”
On November 7 1903 the world mourned the death of an amazing man, and although his family, friends, and the city of Peoria infinitely missed him, it was not thought of as a sad day. He carried himself with such an astute demeanor and set the benchmark for what all men should strive to become; his funeral ended up being a celebration of his life and his giving spirit. It was one of the largest most beautiful burials ever witnessed in Peoria. The Solemn Requiem along with The Gregorian Chant were sang in celebration of Matthew. It was said “the music was of the most solemn and impressive character.” Reverend Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, a dear friend of Matthew’s, spoke eloquently and accurately when he said of Matthew “The world was better that he had lived.” Matthew was a humble man; he worked with incredible vigor knowing celebration would be the outcome. He walked a righteous path in life according to his values, and filled it with family, friends, and fun. He was an earnest and extraordinarily successful man who didn’t compromise what mattered for selfish reward. He was worthy of much praise although he was too humble to accept it. His ideals, values, and teachings will never die, and should be celebrated.