Last Chance is one of those Lucas County place names that, because of its oddity, generates stories. But the truth seems to be that its first storekeeper, William McDonald McHenry, named it offhandedly after it occured to him that he was living in a place that didn't yet have a name.
McHenry, approaching 40, his wife, Nancy, and their two children, Mary Ann and Don Joe, arrived in Lucas County from Clermont County, Ohio, about 1863. They continued southwest down the Mormon Trail from Chariton, past the current site of Goshen Baptist Church and stopped just short of the Clarke County line.
A school teacher by profession, McHenry entered land there and perhaps taught for a few terms, but during April of 1865 he decided to open a general store. There was no other store in Union Township at the time and the old trail still was a main route for westbound travelers.
The editor of The Chariton Democrat picked up the story of the name "Last Chance" six years later, in his edition of March 30, 1871, and reported it thus:
"We have often asked how (Last Chance) happened to get that name. Mr. McHenry explains it. He says that during the dark days of the war, a shaggy looking Missourian happened along that way, and evidently was going somewhere. He had a musket, two or three revolvers, a Bowie-knife or two, and seemed ready for business. He halted in front of Mr. McHenry's place, where Mc. was sitting on the fence, meditating upon the uncertainties of life in general and of the war in particular. The traveler asked the name of the place, and then it suddenly occurred to Mc. that he was living in a place that had no name. He opened his eyes, scratched his head, and a smile came over his good natured face as he said, "Let's call it Last Chance." And they called it so, more in a joke than in earnest, but when the post office was established there, the powers at Washington said it was Last Chance. And it isn't a bad kind of a place either."
The Last Chance Post Office was established in 1865, more than likely located in McHenry's store, but he parted company with the fledgling village during 1873 and in 1874 moved his stock of goods and his family to the new town of Humeston, just over the line southeast in Wayne County, and opened a general store there on Jan. 16, 1874.
The fate of Last Chance had been more or less sealed during 1872 when the route of the new branch of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad (later C.B.&Q.) passed to the southeast and the new towns of Derby, closer to Last Chance and also in Union Township, and Humeston, just beyond, were platted and began to thrive. That branch connected Chariton with Garden Grove and points beyond, leading eventually to St. Joseph, Missouri. Today, we know the stretch of that route from Chariton to Humeston as the Cinder Path.
The Chariton Patriot's Derby correspondent claimed a little over-optimistically in its edition of April 23, 1873, that "Derby has already absorbed Last Chance and by fall we are in hopes there will be ample accommodations for Freedom (a village to the east)."
At that point, McHenry apparently was planning to relocate in Derby rather than Humeston because the Patriot's report continued, "McHenry has removed his goods from Last Chance, and with a neat stock arriving daily from Chicago, he is awaiting the completing of Throckmorton's building."
It appears, however, that McHenry received a better offer from Humeston --- his projected Derby store seems never to have opened.
The editor of the Patriot made a stop in Last Chance during November of 1879 --- literally selling subscriptions door to door as well as building good will for his publication --- and by that time the village was in serious decline.
He reported in his edition of Nov. 12: "Monday we went south to the town formerly owned by McHenry, called Last Chance. Mc. has moved away, and with him departed the glory of the place. The store room is now used as a dwelling, and most of the houses that had been built are vacant or moved out on farms. Joseph Davis will have charge of the post office soon, and talks some of putting in a stock of goods; certainly it would be good for some one to open a stock of groceries here as it is several miles to any other trading point."
Various attempts to revive the store failed and during 1886, the Last Chance Post Office closed for the final time, although it remained officially on postal service books until 1888.
Last Chance Christian Church, a short distance west of the village, continued to thrive, however --- and during 1896 built and dedicated a new building. It remained the heart of a community declining in size with Iowa's rural population until well into the second half of the 20th century, when it closed.
Today, only the Last Chance Cemetery remains to mark the general location of what once was a village with aspirations.
The McHenrys flourished in Humeston. William acquired a great deal of land, built a new brick building to house his mercantile operation and became involved in banking.
But the end involved a good deal of sadness. The McHenrys' only daughter, Mary Ann, died on Nov. 6, 1894, age 44. Their daughter-in-law, Edith, was only 30 when she died on Jan. 3, 1901, leaving two small children in the care of Don Joe and his parents. Nancy McHenry was 76 when she died at the family home on Oct. 16, 1904. William was approaching 80 when he died unexpectedly a year later, on Nov. 30, 1905, while visiting a brother in Centerville. And Don Joe, the last of the family, died on Feb. 18, 1907, at the age of 45.
That left only the two children, Margheritha and Richard Mack, who were taken elsewhere to be raised by relatives.
The mighty granite block that marks the location of family graves in the Humeston Cemetery can be a little confusing. For one reason or another, both Mary Ann and Don Joe McHenry chose to drop the forepart of their surname and were known only as "Henry." So that is the surname inscribed on the major stone of this once-prominent family, although the individual stones reflect the preferred names of those who occupy the graves they mark: William McHenry, Nancy McHenry, Mary Ann Henry, Edith Henry and Don Joe Henry.