Have a Marlis Day!

When Mr. Riley Came to Town

Posted on: May 17, 2011

On April 29, 1916, James Whitcomb Riley, our beloved Hoosier poet visited our small town, Monroe City, Indiana. He recited his poems at the Presbyterian Church on Main Street. My grandmother, Margaret Black, 28 at the time, was in attendance. I imagine she took my dad who was only 3. How I wish I could have been there to hear “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin,” “Little Orphan Annie,” and “The Raggedy Man.” A well-published poet, Riley’s work adorned coffee tables and parlors of American homes around the turn of the century. His first published book, The Old Swimmin’ Hole, sold more than 500,000 copies, a phenonenon in those days. Writing over 1,000 poems, he was a super star in his day, reciting his work in front of thousands. He was a guest at the White House on several occasions, lunching with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Riley traveled by train, then later by car to towns all over America reading to his fans. He is best remembered for his woodsy, home-spun verse and pioneer Indiana dialect.

Some thoughtful proprietors of Reed’s Hotel in nearby Petersburg, Indiana, where he stayed, saved the page of the guestbook and later had copies made. I had one laminated and donated it to the local library. His signature is easy to read. I noticed he paid $1.50 for his room. I visited his hometown, Greenfield, during “Riley Days” and toured his childhood home. I was touched to see  his clothes, his bedroom, and his toys, as well as many of the subjects of his poems.

Riley Hospital, the famous children’s hospital in Indianapolis is named for him as well as many schools and streets. My Margo Brown mysteries, are set in fictional Riley County and the school where Margo teaches is, of course, Riley Middle School. In my Bailey’s Chase juvenile novels, Sparky and Grey attend Riley Elementary School. They participate in a JWR Poetry Contest in the first book, which Grey wins.  In the sequel they learn how Mr. Riley’s spirit hovered near during the contest, and that he was very pleased with their efforts.

Grandma shared how she read aloud on the front porch during warm summer evenings, and neighbors, young and old would come to listen. She said it wasn’t unusual for a youngster to call into her kitchen, “Are you gonna read tonight, Miz Black?” I’ve always enjoyed reading aloud to youngsters; maybe I inherited it from Grandma. Maybe it all started because Mr. Riley came to town.


5 Responses to "When Mr. Riley Came to Town"

Loved you story about James W. Riley. Love his poems. And I think i would have liked your grandmother too! Did he come to Vincennes, or Monroe City? Where was the hotel in Petersburg? We had an impersonator come to the school to talk to the children & they really enjoyed him.

Another wonderful post. I don’t know James W. Riley’s work. Will have to look him up now.

As a fellow Hoosier, I love this blog post! It brings back memories of reciting his poetry in school.

I love Riley’s poems. Have bought some of the reprinted books so I can re-read them. Great blog. I think your grandmother would be proud.

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