His struggles as a child growing up were many and real, yet the dignitaries who knew him and worked alongside him during his many years of service in the White House and the State House never knew of them. James Alexander Hemenway attended the common schools in Warrick County, up to the eighth grade only. His father was not a wealthy man, though he made a comfortable living for the family, let his son know that “his finding steady employment was far more important than any more education.”
Because his father was the Boonville Postmaster at the time, he was hired on to work as a clerk, something that the young lad didn’t enjoy at all. According to research, he was so eager to learn and to better himself that he secured good books from friends and libraries and, in between calls to come up to the window at the Post Office, he studied until he almost knew all of the words by heart. Even then, his father chided him when he caught him reading and oftentimes struck him in the face in front of the other workers in the Post Office.
After the death of his father, Hemenway took off for Kansas, where he filed a claim on 60 acres. He later found out, after months of back-breaking hard work, that he was too young to have qualified for the Homestead Law. After losing everything he had worked for, including his team and wagon, he returned to his hometown of Boonville.
For a time, he worked as a sewing machine salesman. Later, he decided to study the law, as well. By 1885, he had opened his own law practice in Boonville. An acquaintance suggested to him that he run for office on the Republican ticket. He had his doubts about it, as he never had any experience along those lines. But, according to his biography, “He campaigned heartily by hitching an old horse up to his sewing machine wagon and went out and won the hearts of the farmlands and he also won some votes.”
Hemenway served in the Second Judicial Circuit of Indiana from 1886 to 1890 and was then elected to Congress on the Republican ticket, serving Indiana’s First District, and continued for the five succeeding terms. It was then that he was elected to serve in the United States Senate from 1905 to 1909.
He was a wise and dignified gentleman who represented Warrick County and Indiana well, making friends along the way and shared a close personal friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt, who served the United States in the White House during Hemenway’s time. Hemenway is on record as having been the only United States Senator who continued to live in the same town as he was born. He resumed his law practice after these years were over.
Hemenway and his wife had a lovely and private “summer home” near Degonia Springs, a short distance from Boonville, in a small area known as Ash Iron Springs. There, they held small family gatherings and picnics for friends, in the privacy and beauty of the woods and lakes. He passed away in 1923 at the age of 62 while in Miami, Fla. He is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Boonville.
There is a permanent bronze plaque on the Warrick County Courthouse lawn at the North entrance, honoring James A. Hemenway. It was erected in 1938 by the Warrick County Historical Society. It reads as follows, “U.S. House of Representatives 1895-1905, U.S. State Senate, 1905-1909. James A. Hemenway, who, through hard work, struggles, practical genius and American opportunity, rose to positions of high honor and responsibility in both Houses of Congress. His distinguished service to The State of Indiana was a very important contribution to American ideals and good government. In appreciation of his life and service, this is hereby erected by his many friends and a grateful community.”
The life and accomplishments of James Alexander Hemenway is a great example of what a young man with grit and determination can accomplish.