Portrait of Augustus Hemenway

Canton Local History Blog

Patty Ryburn, Local History Librarian at the Canton Public Library, will periodically share her research into town history, library history and genealogy.  Feel free to email her any questions you may have at caill@ocln.org!

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Nov 13

Augustus Hemenway (1853 - 1931)

Posted on November 13, 2019 at 1:45 PM by Patty Ryburn

Augustus Hemenway, c. 1875

Mrs. Augustus Hemenway

by John Singer Sargent 1890.

Private Collection.

   (1853 - 1931)

The youngest child and only son in the family of five born to Edward Augustus Holyoke Hemenway and Mary (Tileston) Hemenway, young Augustus Hemenway was raised in great wealth balanced by an example of philanthropy set by both of his parents.  The well-staffed family home in which he spent his youth was located in Beacon Hill, Boston while the family’s “country estate” was in nearby Canton.

One of Boston’s most influential merchants, Augustus Sr. had gone to work as a young teen employed initially as a shipping clerk in a dry goods store.  Within a few years, he was working as supercargo--shipping out aboard merchant vessels as a representative of the ship’s owner and overseeing the cargo and resultant sale of goods--before working his way up to agent and partner in the company.  

At twenty one years old and owner of his own firm and ships at Lewis Wharf, Boston, Augustus Hemenway and Company sailed its fleet to and from Chile, as he correctly gauged salable goods for that area and imported raw materials back to the east coast.  Later an owner of both a township and a saw mill in Maine, he also exported lumber to Cuba to support a large sugar plantation from which he profited greatly.

From Maine to Boston and New York, and further south to Cuba and South America, Hemenway’s businesses expanded to include real estate as well as the lumber, sugar plantation and mining interests already established.  His marriage to Mary Tileston also served to benefit these ventures as Mary’s father, Thomas Tileston, was a leading merchant in South American trade at that time. At one point in his career, Augustus was viewed to be the wealthiest man in America.

Son Augustus, a Harvard graduate and one of its “most conspicuous benefactors” (as per the Harvard Crimson) lived a life of philanthropy as well as public service.  Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1875, he donated a gymnasium bearing his name which was enlarged two decades later and considered one of the finest in the world at that time; he also served as an overseer of the university.  Not limited to his alma mater, his philanthropy included MIT, the MFA and the original Metropolitan Park Commission which was responsible for the creation of the Revere Beach reservation, the metropolitan park system and the Trustees of Reservations.  

Additionally, Augustus was a Representative in the Massachusetts Legislature and served in various positions supporting institutions such as the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Groton School, and was a trustee of several large estates.  His marriage to Harriett Lawrence expanded his philanthropic interests to include the initial Massachusetts Audubon Society (Harriett was one of its original founders) and their Canton home in the Green St. area provided the proximity from which the town of Canton benefited time and time again throughout Hemenway’s life.

Augustus Hemenway served for many years on the Canton School Committee and--perhaps partially following his mother’s example--used his wealth to promote family, education and literacy.  The elder Mrs. Hemenway was largely responsible for having introduced cooking and sewing into the Boston Public School system as well as lending support to the North Carolina school for the education of poor whites which bears her family/maiden name.  Mary (Tileston) Hemenway’s causes also included anti-slavery, women’s suffrage and historical preservation in various forms; she was closely involved in saving the Old South Meetinghouse in Boston. Sketches of both Augustus and his mother Mary (done by artists Frank W. Benson and Sydney L. Smith, respectively) can be found hanging in the original marble lobby of the Canton Public Library “under the dome”.

The town of Canton was the fortunate recipient more than once of Augustus’ family fortune and generosity.  Upon the close of the 19th century when it became apparent that the town’s library had outgrown the small space it then occupied in Memorial Hall, Hemenway financed a new building across the street--a gift to the town--its deed signed over upon completion.  That framed original deed, dated 1902 and bequeathing Canton a “Free Public Library and Reading Room”, is on display in the Bolster Local History Room located on the main floor of the (now expanded) library.

The Canton Public Library holds further evidence of Hemenway’s philanthropic gestures towards the community.  Displayed in the library’s Children’s Room is a framed document entitled “PONKAPOAG 1893 Founders of the New School house”, listing the names of the former students of the Ponkapoag school whom Hemenway involved in a cleverly disguised “fundraiser” and investment in their futures by urging each one of them to contribute five cents towards a new building whilst he (privately) pledged to fund the remainder.  Still standing on Rte. 138 and now the Ponkapoag Chapel, that white shingled building replaced the former one room schoolhouse which had, like the library, outgrown its original space.

Opening in 1911, the aptly named Hemenway School was, at least in spirit, partially funded by those pint-sized contributions and a none-too-soon answer to the town’s need for expanded school facilities as its population steadily increased.  Situated on the former Frank M. Ames estate, the now former high school (subsequently an elementary school) is currently serving as one of Canton’s elderly housing buildings and is conveniently located at the intersection of Washington and Revere Sts.  It was Augustus Hemenway whose sizeable donation catapulted the school into being; only a few years later he also proved to be instrumental in the construction of the Revere School which opened in Canton center in 1914.

A portion of his former Ponkapoag area estate, purchased by the MDC parks system after Augustus’ death in 1931, is now part of the Blue Hills Reservation; thus his legacy includes not merely useful buildings for community purposes supporting education and literacy, but also open space for its citizens’ recreational enjoyment.  When he died in May of that year, Augustus Hemenway left a widow, five children and--by using his personal wealth for the greater good--an almost immeasurable and lasting legacy of unselfish benevolence towards the Canton community.


“Augustus Hemenway dead near Boston: Helped Start the Metropolitan Park System--Served as a Harvard Overseer.”  New York Times   26 May 1931, Special to the New York Times: pg. 33.

Comeau, George T. “True Tales from Canton’s Past: Ringing in a New School Year.” The Canton Citizen  16 Aug 2012.

Comeau, George T. “True Tales from Canton’s Past: Gone and Almost Forgotten.” The Canton Citizen  25 Oct 2012.

Comeau, George T. “True Tales from Canton’s Past: Canton’s Golden Age.” The Canton Citizen  24 Jul 2014.

Comeau, George T. “True Tales from Canton’s Past: A Lithic Journey.” The Canton Citizen  16 Oct 2014.

Eustis, Frederic A.  Augustus Hemenway 1805 - 1876 Builder of the United States Trade with the West Coast of South America.  Portland, Maine: The Anthoesen Press, 1955, Salem Peabody Museum.

Paris, Candace “Canton connections abound at Eustis Estate.” The Canton Citizen  04 Aug 2017.