Searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1

Searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1

In this blog, I write about a search Searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1. Rooster and I took up the quest to find the essence of this elusive Indiana poet, #Little Orphant Annie #James Whitcomb Riley #Poet #Boyhood Home #Greenfield #Indiana

The sky is grey and blustery, and the leaves have turned gold and red.

The wet fall weather whispers a suggestion to linger in your warm comfy bed.

There’s an adventure waiting if you are willing to embark on it,

 The challenge will be a quest to discover the original “Hoosier Poet.”

It was raining cats and dogs when we went searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1.

My mother would have said it was pouring cats and dogs outside. I never understood the exact meaning of the cliché, but the torrential storm we woke up to on Saturday morning looked like angels were dumping buckets of water from the sky.

It was tempting to suggest we stay home where it was dry except it was an adventure Saturday. We did a search on the computer for something interesting we could do, which didn’t require us to be outside in the wet.

I thought the boyhood home of James Whitcomb Riley was calling our names. Rooster didn’t know much about this poet. Verses such as Little Orphant Annie and the Raggedy Man weren’t popular in the Southern California school system of the 1960s. California kids weren’t interested in frost on the pumpkin.

Rooster took this adventure idea with a degree of skepticism, but he plugged 250 W Main Street Greenfield, Indiana into the GPS. We headed down the highway in the pouring rain.

We drove toward Greenfield

It was a strange ride, especially through the middle of Indianapolis. On a normal day, we can spot large buildings as we travel the freeway. Today it was even hard to make out Lucas Oil Stadium where the Colts play. The deluge calmed down by the time we rounded the city and headed toward Greenfield.

The rain slowed to a trickle when we pulled to the curb in front of James Whitcomb Riley’s Boyhood Home and Museum. The last tour had already started, but they let us join it in on the fun. Phyllis was a wonderful guide as she escorted us through the rooms of the old Riley house.

Searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1 led us to his boyhood home

We walked in while she was explaining about the rope mattress on the bed, showing us how it was tightened for the comfort of the sleeper. Ruben, James Whitcomb Riley’s father, was a talented woodworker. He made many of the items in the house, including a blanket trunk.

A dress James wore as a baby was spread out on top of the wooden chest. It was common for male children to wear dresses until they were old enough to be in long pants. It helped with the potty-training process. Ruben was a Greenfield attorney who had a law office in one of the front rooms of the house across from the parlor.

Our tour guide Phyllis

Phyllis led us into the room where James slept when he was a boy. This is where she explained Little Orphant Annie was a real person. She came to live with Elizabeth Riley when Ruben went off to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. She was twelve when she came to stay. James would have been eleven. Part of her duties was to help care for the children.

Phyllis explained how the young girl had to use her wits to keep a handle on the rowdy boys. She told scary stories about bad children who ended up with a terrible fate for their behavior. Riley penned, “An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll get ya ef you don’t watch out.” Phyllis instructed us to open the attic door if we had the courage to do so. When you peered into the dark you could see two holes, which looked like goblin eyes. Annie was a very resourceful young lady.

Who was Mary Alice Smith

Mary Alice Smith was the name of the orphan who spent about nine months with the Riley’s. The next room we visited was the one she would have slept in while she was with the family. The mattress she used was constructed out of straw, placed on the floor, and didn’t have a bed frame. Mary Alice didn’t have much, but she did have a silencer on her chamber pot. A crochet pad was fitted on top to cushion the sound when the lid was removed during the night. Mary Alice also had the best view in the house from the back window, which looked down onto Riley’s farmland.

Next stop searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1

The next stop we made was Riley’s kitchen. It differed from the homes we toured in the south. Those homes tended to have kitchens on the outside of the house. There were a couple of things I took away from observing this space. Women’s work was never done during this period in history and nothing in the household went to waste. The Riley’s even made a dipper out of a coconut that was given to the family one Christmas.

We moved into the dining room where Phyllis recited another verse of the Riley poem before she showed us a scary closet Mary Alice may have used to frighten the children. If you went into the closet to hide, the door tended to close behind you without you shutting it yourself. The second point of interest was the painting hanging on the wall, which was a civil war warning to watch out for the hidden enemy. I found the fox in the middle of the chickens interesting. The predator blended into the background until you looked for him.

Things I learned while Searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1

There were several facts about Riley’s life I wasn’t aware of before we made this trip to Greenfield. He was a talented musician who could play a variety of instruments. His favorite was the bass drum. When he started his career in poetry, he traveled from town to town with a medicine show, beating the drum from the back of the wagon to attract people to the performance. He also made his living painting houses, barns, and signs until he made money from his writing.

His father must have thought his son was going to hell in a handbasket because he didn’t take up a more traditional trade. The family lost the house after Ruben came back from fighting in the war because finances were tight, and his law practice suffered. Riley bought the home back after he became successful. He never married or had children, so he took care of his family until his death.


There was one more piece of interesting memorabilia Phyllis pointed out as we were about to exit the house. A porcelain dog sat on the mantel, which was there when James lived in the house. Phyllis is a great storyteller and one of the best tour guides we’ve encountered. She knew every stanza of the Riley poem by heart.

She also had a talent for creating drama while we moved through the museum. Her mother had also conducted tours at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home back in the 1950s. She told us the eyes of the dog sometimes glowed brighter than other days. “They seemed to be more lit up today than normal,” she said. My writer’s imagination like to believe the ghost of Riley was saying hi to another Hoosier scribbler, but it was probably only Phyllis creating more drama for the visitors.

We found Little Orphant Annie searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1

I found the life of James Whitcomb Riley inspiring. His use of Mary Alice Smith as Little Orphant Annie is a perfect example of how an author takes the aspects of their life and transforms them into the written word on the page. It goes to show a person can’t escape the environment in which they live during the creative process. Riley wrote 1000 poems during his lifetime. That is a massive amount of wordsmithing to achieve without the help of a computer.

Riley never went to college. He wrote in the dialect of the Hoosier people of the 1800s. He is the living testament of an author who wrote what he knew and made a success out of the attempt. The rain made a return visit as we moved away from the historic home. When we climbed back into the car and pulled away from the curb, I was glad we ventured out into the rain in search of the “Hoosier Poet.”


In conclusion

The trip home through the Indiana landscape was dreary and waterlogged. Farmers have already been in the fields, leaving behind bare spots where the corn has been harvested. Indiana in November can take on an eerie feel. A constant reminder, “The goblins will get you if you don’t watch out.”

Who is Molly Shea?

Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh.  To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.

Be sure to follow Molly on Twitter!

Published by henhouselady

I am the author of Saving the Hen House. I didn't know when I started it would turn into a series. I love to ride motorcycles, the blues, my family, and going on adventures. This old hen rocks.

One thought on “Searching for James Whitcomb Riley 1

  1. I have heard of James Whitcomb Riley but didn’t really know anything about him. That was really interesting, and sounds like a great and enlightening visit to his home.

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