As a child, the poet James Whitcomb Riley liked to watch the westward bound wagons, stagecoaches and carriages as they moved along the National Road past his home. He’s still doing it today. The horse-drawn vehicles have been replaced with pickup trucks, SUV’s and cars, but he still sits watching them. The Riley who watches the world go by now is a handsome statue on a bench just yards from his boyhood home, but it’s a fitting place for him to be. Could Riley actually return he would probably be pleased to see this likeness of him still watching that road, a man gazing fondly on the place he loved, but fascinated by the world going by, a man who would spend much of his life on the roads of America, traveling from one performance to another.
The spirit of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is present in his hometown of Greenfield, Indiana, and the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum evokes the time of Riley and his family there. The site is owned and operated by the City of Greenfield’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the objects and artifacts in the home are cataloged and managed by the Riley Old Home Society. The site, which has been in operation since the 1930s, is two buildings and the acreage upon which they stand—Riley’s actual boyhood home, which visitors can tour and which features many objects that belonged to the family, and the Mitchell House next door, which houses the museum displaying artifacts related to Riley and his career.
There is a carriage house on the property along with gardens, a rose arbor, a gazebo and a small outbuilding. The backyard area with its gazebo and rose arbor can be rented for weddings and the outbuilding contains a kitchen for food preparation for special events held on site.
The Riley Boyhood Home and Museum are located along U.S. 40 in the heart of Greenfield, just a brief walk from the Hancock County Courthouse, where another statue of Riley, paid for by donations from American schoolchildren, stands in front of the courthouse. Riley’s presence is felt throughout Greenfield. This is clearly a town that values its writerly native son.
There is a Riley Park further east along U.S. 40, featuring a silhouette of the poet at the top of the entrance gate, and just a short distance further east is a Riley Park Plaza, also featuring a similar likeness of the poet in its signage. Each October around the time of Riley’s birthday the town honors its most famous resident with Riley Days.
Riley Days is an arts and crafts festival held in Greenfield. The festival begins each year on the first Thursday in October. A parade, floats, musicians, food, and hundreds of vendors’ booths are part of the festival. During the Parade of Flowers local schoolchildren walk to the Hancock County Courthouse to place flowers in front of Riley’s statue. Each year one of Riley’s poems is chosen as a theme. For 2017 the poem is “After The Frost,” and the 2018 entry will be “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s”—one of the best known and most beloved Riley poems.
Riley Days dates back to 1912 when Indiana Governor Samuel Ralston asked all of the state to celebrate “Riley Days.” A year later a parade was held in Greenfield on his birthday in which Riley rode in a car through town and children covered both the car and Riley with flowers, then fell into line behind the vehicle as it made its way to the courthouse. Here Riley, deeply moved by the outpouring of his fellow citizens, was presented with a loving cup. Riley said “Heaven will indeed have to surpass itself to find more than I have here.”
During the next year he watched the parade from the front porch of his Greenfield home. It was the last time. James Whitcomb Riley died on July 22, 1916. According to the Riley Days website, an estimated 35,000 people attended his funeral.
The Riley Home and Museum and Greenfield is one of two Riley sites in Indiana. The other is the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home in the Lockerbie neighborhood of Indianapolis. This home, where Riley spent his later years as a paying guest of Charles and Magdalena Holstein, is a National Historic Landmark.
While James Whitcomb Riley isn’t as well known as he once was in American popular culture, he remains well known to many older American adults and especially so in Indiana, thanks in large part to his two homes in the state. He also lives on as the namesake of The Riley Hospital for Children at IU (Indiana University) Health in Indianapolis, Indiana, one of the nation’s leading children’s hospitals. The Riley Foundation, which supports the work of the Riley Hospital for Children, also operates the Riley home in Indianapolis.
One hundred years ago Riley was virtually a household name. His homespun poetry that celebrated childhood, the joys of rural life and everyday kinds of pleasures, some of it in dialect, was enormously popular. For many years he was a celebrated performer on the lecture stage with a commanding presence. The distinguished British actor Sir Henry Irving, who listened to Riley recite, said the stage lost a great actor when Riley decided to focus his efforts on literature.
Riley was born in Greenfield on October 7, 1849. He grew up in the town and attended school there. Riley was a reluctant student but a voracious reader, and from an early age demonstrated musical, dramatic and literary talent. He also had a flair for acrobatics. His lawyer father Reuben Riley encouraged his son to learn the law, but Riley abandoned the effort, and began working as a sign painter in his early twenties, painting signs for businesses and advertisements on fences for circuses and traveling shows.
He also worked some as an actor and musician, traveling with patent medicine shows through the state of Indiana and becoming more familiar with its cities, towns, hamlets and people.
Riley transitioned to journalism and contributed articles, poems and stories to Indiana newspapers. A hoax he perpetrated—writing a poem called “Leonanie” for the Kokomo Dispatch and passing it off as a recently discovered work by Edgar Allan Poe—backfired on Riley and he lost his job as editor with the Anderson Democrat. But he rebounded, landed a position with the Indianapolis Journal and his poetry career really took off with a volume of poems called The Ol’ Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, ostensibly written by “Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone,” a homespun stand-in for Riley who spoke for rural America.
Riley’s future was assured. He continued to publish poetry and became a sought-after speaker and performer on the lecture circuit, at times sharing the stage with humorists such as Mark Twain and Bill Nye—men who held Riley in high regard, as did William Dean Howells and other important literary figures of the time.
It’s hard for us in our own time, when the “popular poet” is largely a nonexistent kind of figure, to understand just how beloved and popular Riley and his poetry were. Crowds flocked to his readings and lectures. He visited the White House repeatedly. His likeness was used to sell a variety of goods.
I visited the Riley Boyhood Home in Greenfield, Indiana on Friday, June 2, 2017. There was plenty of traffic moving through the town that day, and I later learned that I was visiting during the time of the U.S. 40 Yard Sale. U.S. 40 follows the route of the old National Road, one of the first big public works projects of post-Revolutionary War America. It is also the only highway ever constructed by the federal government. The road ran from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois. The U.S. 40 Yard Sale runs from Baltimore, Maryland all the way out to St. Louis, Missouri, usually in the time from Memorial Day to early June.
I parked on U.S. 40 about fifty yards west of the Riley House and was pleased to see the statue of Riley sitting on his bench in the late spring sunshine. The statue is a recent addition from 2016. I entered the Mitchell House, paid the admission fee and had a very enjoyable tour of the home hosted by docent Freida Pettijohn. I found that the tour evoked the lives of all the family members, not just James Whitcomb, and the importance of his parents in his life was underscored during the time I spent in the home and in Greenfield.
Riley was born on this land, but not in the house. At the time of his birth his family was living in a two-room log cabin built by his father Reuben. The story of Riley’s father is fascinating. He was a lawyer and politician also skilled in manual arts such as carpentry and furniture making. He built the Riley home, which is a testament to the talent and dedication of Reuben Riley.
The family lived in the cabin as Reuben Riley built the home by hand in the hours when he wasn’t working at his law practice. It took him three years to build the home, which also includes a cellar that he dug by hand. James Whitcomb was five when they moved into the new home. The Rileys also had some farm property nearby.
Riley was the third child born to Reuben and Elizabeth Riley. The oldest child was John Andrew (1844), followed by a daughter named Martha Celestia (1847), who died at the age of four in 1851. Three children were born in the new home following the birth of James Whitcomb. They were Elva May (1856), Reuben Alexander Humboldt (1859), and then Mary Elizabeth (1864).
His parents Reuben Riley and Elizabeth Marine were married in Union Port, Indiana on February 29, 1844. Elizabeth Marine was born in North Carolina, a descendant of English Quakers. Her father owned a plantation but held anti-slavery sentiments. He freed his slaves and moved north to Indiana. Reuben Riley was a Pennsylvanian of English and German stock. Reuben Riley had even spoken a German dialect as a child before he learned English. Reuben and his family left Pennsylvania when he was a boy and lived for a time in Ohio’s Montgomery County near Dayton before moving on to Randolph County in Indiana where the town of Union Port is located. Reuben worked as a schoolteacher before becoming an attorney.
Reuben and Elizabeth moved to Greenfield two months after their wedding. Reuben established a successful law practice and became a politician as well, displaying a gift for oratory. An ardent Democrat who would later become a Republican because of the slavery issue, he worked hard to help elect James Polk and was elected to the state legislature at twenty-six. Reuben named his poet son after an Indiana governor he admired, James Whitcomb. Riley’s father later served as a delegate at the Republican convention in Chicago that nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate, and when the war came, Reuben Riley, at age forty-one, organized a company of Union volunteers in Hancock County. He would be elected captain of Company I of the Eighth Indiana Regiment, a unit that would soon see action in West Virginia. In the summer of 1861, Riley and his men participated in the Battle of Rich Mountain in West Virginia. Here Riley was wounded and lost his hearing in his left ear.
He returned home to Greenfied after his three-month enlistment, but his company later joined the Fifth Cavalry, which was attached to the 90th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. He soon saw action in Ohio against Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders, and later served as an advocate general in Kansas, where he became enamored of the local landscape and bought a farm, flirting with the idea of moving out there, but Elizabeth had no interest and nothing came of the plan.
The time of the Civil War and years after were ones of hardship and disruption for the Riley family. Their income was reduced when Reuben was away in service and his health was impaired. Other lawyers had come to town to compete for business, and Reuben struggled with the aftereffects of his wounds. It is possible that there might have been some psychological trauma as well—PTSD is not a new phenomenon. Not long after the war, the family lost the home and moved into a series of other dwellings, each one more unpleasant than the last. It was during these years that Elizabeth Riley died of heart disease when James Whitcomb was only twenty.
Riley’s mother was an important figure in his life. Riley seems to have gotten his performing ability from his father, but his sensitive nature and propensity for poetry appears to be a legacy from his maternal forebears. One of Riley’s cousins stated his looks and temperament were closer to the Marines than the Rileys. Elizabeth was a patient woman, a devoted mother who loved poetry and enjoyed telling her children stories. Although the Rileys were prosperous enough to afford some domestic help, many of her hours were spent cooking, childrearing, sewing and attending to other household duties.
The loss of his mother hit Riley hard, and he vowed during this time of family suffering to buy back the home one day. He did, and he liked to return there and enjoy the peace of his hometown and get a respite from the crowds and attention. Riley’s sister-in-law Julie lived in the home for a number of years after his death and sometimes gave tours during the Riley commemorations in October. The Riley Old Home Society was able to reacquire a number of authentic family items later on—items that are on display in the house and are described here.
Historical homes like this one often stimulate a train of thought in me about how different things were then. We see these homes in our modern time as they are now–museums of how people once lived. But think for a moment of how different this time was. There was no running water—if you needed water you got it from your well. Chamberpots and outhouses were used instead of flush toilets. There was no air conditioning. Windows were open in warm and hot weather, bringing flies into the home.
Bathing was infrequent. Rooms were cold in winter except for the space around the fire, and once that burned down the whole room was chilly. Lamplight from oil lamps or candles provided the only lighting in a home during evening hours other than firelight.
One thing you would notice immediately, could you travel back in time, would be the prevalence of certain odors. Dung from horses and other animals was a constant in the streets, and you would immediately notice human body odors and the oiliness of people’s hair. Although Riley celebrated the pleasures of childhood and his small town life near the country, he, his family and all of his community were aware of its hazards and limitations. Life expectancy could be short. Child mortality rates were high. As noted earlier, the family lost one daughter when she was only four, and Riley knew other families who lost children. Medical care was primitive. Fire could quickly lay waste to individual homes and city blocks.
On the other hand, life in this time had its pleasures. Greenfield only had about 300 residents and was essentially a frontier community when Reuben and Elizabeth moved there. People felt a sense of community and helped each other out. Fraternal organizations, church groups and literary societies offered opportunities for intellectual stimulation and fellowship. People called on one another’s skills to help accomplish tasks.
The pleasures of Riley’s childhood world are a fun and important part of Riley’s home in Greenfield. I toured the home with an excellent tour guide named Frieda Pettijohn, who has worked there for more than twenty years. Frieda intersperses her information with recitations of short excerpts of Riley’s poetry, which adds a touch of extra fun to the tour and emphasizes one of the important elements of Riley’s career—his colorful dialect verse.
The tour began in the front parlor, a space that would have been used to entertain guests. This room contains one of a number of fireplaces in the home. A small clock and a dog figurine on a shelf above the fireplace were items in the Riley home during his early years. Although a number of furniture pieces and other household items are from the time period and did not belong to the Rileys, the house still contains an astonishing number of original Riley possessions and furniture, as well as carpentry tools used by Reuben Riley. The Riley family Bible is held in this front parlor space also.
A room off to the side of the parlor was the law office of Reuben Riley. He built the large desk in here that has a bookshelf unit standing atop it that he built as well. Examples of attractive and well-built furniture created by Reuben Riley appear throughout the home.
A simple but elegant staircase takes visitors to the second floor. Reuben Riley worked on the staircase during the entire three year time period it took to build the house. Individual boards had to be soaked in water and shaped into steps. The staircase plays a role in the story of Mary Alice Smith, the orphan girl who came to live for a while with the Riley family who is the subject of the famous poem “Little Orphant Annie.”
The girl lived with the family for a period of about six months but made an indelible impression on the Riley children. At the time she came to live with them the family was undergoing a period of financial hardship. Mrs. Riley, who was known as a compassionate and loving person, agreed to take in the little girl, but she would have to do household chores for her room and board.
Mary Alice became fast friends with little James Whitcomb Riley. She was fascinated with the staircase and called it the “staircase to heaven” and named each one of the steps. She also liked to slide down the banister. Mary Alice had a lively imagination and regaled the children with stories, eventually inspiring in turn, many years later, Riley’s poem with its famous refrain “the Gobble-uns’ll git you/ Ef You Don’t Watch Out!”
After reaching the top of the stairs guests see Riley’s parents’ bedroom. There is a cradle in the bedroom built by Reuben Riley and used by the Riley children. There is also a rocking chair constructed by him along with a beautiful box he created for his wife that she used to hold her sewing supplies.
The interior of the lid is decorated with illustrations from the time and her initials “EMR” for Elizabeth Marine Riley are on the top of the lid. The box is also decorated with mother of pearl.
Next up on the tour is the bedroom used by Riley’s sisters. Reuben Riley-made items here include a cane-bottomed chair, a quilt box and a box used to hold handkerchiefs and gloves. Mother of pearl is also used in this handkerchief box.
A door from the girls’ bedroom leads into a long attic-like room that was home to James Whitcomb Riley and his brothers. At the end of the room through another door is a landing at the top of the back stairwell where Mary Alice Smith lived during her time in the home.
The boys’ room contains two important artifacts of Riley’s childhood. There is a dress Riley wore as a toddler lying atop a bed, and there is also a pair of red and black boots that Reuben bought for him that are still vibrantly colored.
Before moving on to the space where Mary Alice slept, Frieda opened a little side door in the wall and asked me to lean in and check if I could see the goblins. I leaned in and peered into the dark space. I couldn’t see anything at first, but she told me to look towards the back. At the end of the crawl space in the darkness two small holes, set about as far apart as a pair of human eyes, permitted daylight to enter the space, rendering a weird but funny effect of two white eyes gleaming in the darkness. Ha!—pretty cool! I can appreciate a literary tour with a sense of humor and fun, and this fit well with Riley and his childhood world of good times, goblins and hijinks.
The room also features another of Reuben’s woodworking pieces—a cabinet that opens at the top and holds a bowl and pitcher for washing.
At the end of the room, beyond a door and at the landing at the top of the back stairs, is the space where Mary Alice lived. She had a pallet she slept on. Although I enjoyed seeing all the rooms in the house, this space made a particular impression on me and I have thought often of it since.
From what I have read, she was not an orphan in the sense her parents were dead. The best recent biography, written by Elizabeth J. Van Allen, states that she likely came from a home where there were problems between the parents and they were no longer together. She stayed for a while with an uncle before he brought her to the Riley home. She lived with the Riley family for a period of time and later married. She still has descendants in the area. What does seem undeniable is that she was a bright, creative and vivacious child–and she left a lasting impression on Riley and his siblings.
I followed Frieda down the stairs and we went into the back porch area where Riley recalled Mary Alice shooing away the chickens that liked to roost there. This porch was open in Riley’s younger days and was eventually enclosed. The kitchen is also down here. This kitchen is an addition that came later to the home. Like a lot of homes from this time, cooking was actually done in an outbuilding to minimize the threat to the main house from fire.
Two of the most elegant rooms in the house are seen at the end of the tour. One is the Riley dining room. The next room is the back parlor or family room where they would have spent a lot of time together. There are a number of interesting items in this room. One is the globe on the main table, which was owned by Riley’s teacher Lee O. Harris and was in use when Riley was one of his students.
Riley was an indifferent student at best, but Harris recognized the boy’s talent, encouraged his interest in reading. Harris and Riley became lifelong friends; in fact, it was Harris who worked to steer Riley away from dime novels and towards English classics.
One remarkable piece displayed here is a collage of pictures cut out from various periodicals and artfully arranged by the Riley daughters. This framed piece hangs on the wall. They clearly took their time assembling these and the effect is impressive. Most of these are scenes of domestic life. It wasn’t unusual at this time for people to create decorative work like this from found or scavenged materials—dried or pressed flowers and leaves, hair, clippings from annuals and periodicals.
Another interesting item on the wall is an example of hair art. Two frames hold floral shaped designs created from human hair. Both men and women washed their hair infrequently in these times, but women brushed it regularly. Strands of hair were saved and used to create items like what is pictured here. Locks of hair were also frequently exchanged between friends and lovers, and a lock of hair might be saved as as memento of someone.
Frieda also showed me the underside of one of the stairways we had descended. Here a visitor can get a glimpse of the house’s bones—the joists and masonry—and get a better feel for the materials used in construction. In this same space is a wooden box holding some of Reuben’s tools, which include two planes and a wooden mallet. This little section of the tour had a kind of immediacy, a rawness that made me think about Reuben spending long hours constructing this house after doing his regular work. A little bit of that tough, hardscrabble world of the Indiana frontier stood revealed in that old wood and masonry and that box of tools below the stairs.
The museum in Greenfield also has a good video for visitors to watch. It is about eight minutes in length, and actor Jeff Keel has a straightforward interpretation of Riley—there is no cloying folksiness, and he alludes to the tougher aspects of Riley’s life. His life wasn’t easy. He struggled with alcoholism.
Promoters took advantage of him early in his career until some friends helped arrange better terms for the poet. He had several intense love affairs, but never married or had children—-something he regretted in later years. He knew the loneliness in the midst of adoring crowds that other celebrities have known. Riley was a complex man, and this video addresses some of these issues with tact and grace.
The Mitchell House has a variety of fascinating displays that can help visitors get a feel for the world of the famous American poet. One display, that serves as a reminder of how famous he was, and how different our times are from his, consists of a variety of “Hoosier Poet” canned goods—coffee, mustard, turmeric, allspice, nutmeg, salt—along with two old wooden packing cases with the Hoosier Poet logo. This wasn’t unusual at the time—one cigar company used Walt Whitman’s image, although Whitman was a nonsmoker—but the closest thing I can think of this time in our time was Maya Angelou’s work used on Hallmark’s Mahogany greeting card line. Riley with his Prince Albert coat and spectacles was an instantly recognizable character.
The museum includes personal items of Riley’s—his calling card, hat, walking stick, change purse, cravats and vest. There are artifacts of Reuben Riley’s Civil War service also—his epaulettes, sword, and a fragment of a flag presented to the men of his unit from the women of Greenfield. Manuscript drafts of Riley’s poetry are on display, including a poem he wrote upon learning of the death of General Grant. One of the most unique manuscripts has an interesting story. Omer S.J. “Jack” Williams, a New York City attorney whose mother was a longtime docent at the Riley Home in Greenfield, had the manuscript of the Riley poem “When Christmas Fetched The Wigginses” that had belonged to his mother. He had it stored in a safe at World Trade Center Two. Not long before the attacks, he removed it from the safe and donated it to the Riley Old Home Foundation, saving it from destruction. Visitors can see the complete manuscript on display.
Other mementoes relate to Riley’s influence on local and popular culture. There are keepsake items and souvenirs from Riley celebrations of long ago, and copies of sheet music or record albums featuring Riley’s verses set to music show another dimension of his influence. One song is a version of “When The Frost Is On The Punkin’ with music by fellow Hoosier Hoagy Carmichael.
Two other artists who are connected to Riley have work featured in the museum. Three paintings by Indiana artist Will Vawter, who illustrated some of Riley’s works, are displayed on the walls.
There is also a charming collection of miniature dolls created by Mildred Duncan Davis, a local artist who specialized in these little figures. She created an entire set of dolls based on Riley’s poems.
The Riley Home has a variety of books and souvenirs for sale. There are many editions of Riley’s poems available for purchase. The docents know their material and are welcoming to guests. I also had a great time talking with Stacey Poe, the director, who provided me with much valuable information both during my visit and during a follow-up phone call.
Before I left I spent some time walking the grounds. The area behind the houses is quiet and lovely. The Hancock County Herb Society maintains some beds at the Riley site. One is a Pixie garden with a little sign containing some lines from his poem “The Pixy People.”
There is a little garden area with a circular walking path with the lines from Riley’s “Prayer Perfect.” Herbs are planted in beds and a sign lists the traditional medicinal uses of various herbs. As if these features weren’t appealing enough, there is also a Little Free Library station in the yard in the shape of the Riley home!!
The Riley Boyhood Home and Museum is the subject of a documentary that will air on WTIU in Bloomington August 10, 2017. People with DIRECTV may be able to watch the program if outside the viewing area. It may also be available for purchase afterwards. Anyone interested should contact WTIU directly.
I left the Riley Home and drove a short distance along U.S. 40 to the Pennsy Trail, a biking and hiking path that runs through Hancock County and crosses Brandywine Creek. Here I stood on the bridge over the Brandywine and looked out on the stream where Riley’s swimming hole used to be before silt filled it in. Then I drove up to Riley Park and spent some time there reflecting on Riley and his legacy before getting back on the highway, bound for Terre Haute to see the Eugene Debs House and to search for traces of Theodore Dreiser in that old Midwestern city.
The Riley Home in Greenfield was one of three historic sites I visited in Indiana during the weekend of June 2-4, 2017. The other two—the Eugene Debs House in Terre Haute and the Ernie Pyle Home and WWII Museum in Dana–will be featured here in the coming weeks. What struck me at each site was a notably strong commitment from those who work there to preserve history. I have been involved in history and historical preservation for many years now, and I have seen firsthand examples of places where history is neglected, or where important sites and structures don’t get the attention and promotion they deserve. At all three places I saw heartening examples of people who are good stewards working to preserve history and promote culture and education.
The Riley Home and Museum is a testament to the citizens and governments of Greenfield and Hancock County and their determination to preserve the history of Riley and his family and home. The grounds, Riley home, museum displays, statue, signage and gardens all speak to the community’s commitment to the town’s past and its beloved native son. My experience has also been that many people interested in history also care about both the future and healthy communities. The staff of the Riley Home help educate each generation about this important chapter in regional, literary and national history, and cultural tourism sites like the home and museum, and events such as the Riley Days celebration, serve as revenue sources for the community. It’s a great place for anyone to visit interested in history, literature, midwestern culture, Riley, old homes or Victorian America. The emphasis on Riley’s family, childhood, and the rich imaginative world of both Riley and Mary Alice Smith make it a great stop for families.
James Whitcomb Riley enjoyed his childhood and the rural, small town world in which he lived. He loved his family, home, and community. He immortalized that world for all time. These were years before America began its transition to a more industrial and urban nation. Hundreds of thousands of readers shared his sentiments as they also yearned for what seemed a simpler world in a time of profound change. The James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum in Greenfield, Indiana brings that world to life.
I thank Stacey Poe and Frieda Pettijohn for all their help during my very pleasant visit to The James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum.
James Whitcomb Riley by Elizabeth J. Van Allen. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999. This is an excellent biography.
The Best of James Whitcomb Riley. Edited by Donald C. Manlove. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982.
Visit to James Whitcomb Riley Home and Museum on June 2, 2017. Follow-up interview by phone with Stacey Poe on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.
James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum Facebook page:
Riley Festival website: