Riley's boyhood home in Greenfield IN
The youth bed on which young James slept, and some clothing he wore. Note the little red shoes on the floor.
A portrait of Mary Alice Gray, an orphan girl who came to the Riley home to work and earn her keep. She would become famous in a poem by James - see text for details.
I visited the Riley birthplace today and got a guided tour of the house and grounds by two very able hostesses, both named Patricia, and had a great discussion after with Brigette in the Gift Shop. I had prepared some by reading parts of a web site devoted to Riley and a Wikipedia article on the famous poet (both links also appear at the end of this story).
James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield in a log cabin on a farm on October 7, 1849 and later lived in the house in town I visited after his father purchased it. His father, Reuben, was a noted attorney in Greenfield and was its first mayor. Rueben had his law office in the house and also lived there with his wife, Elizabeth, and their six children. He lived in his parents' house until age 21.
Not a very good student, and often missing school, James graduated from 8th grade at the age of 20 in 1869. He apparently knew little about math and science and geography, and also little about the rules of English grammar. But apparently he was a keen observer of the world around him and the people in it. His poetry and prose for the most part and especially in his early years was written in the local vernacular and phonetically. This probably helped him to become well-liked in the mid-West of his earlier years in Indiana. And though in later years some publishers urged him to move to the east coast or even the west coast, he remained in his beloved Indiana.
But Riley did not confine his life to Indiana. Once he gained some popularity as a writer and especially as a speaker he spent years traveling around the country on the lecture circuit. He even traveled once to England, but felt so uncomfortable that he cut his visit short and returned home. And even in his later years, he settled in Indianapolis and lived there until he died in 1916.
His father served in the Union Army in the Civil War and returned injured and partially paralyzed and was not able to continue his law career. The family eventually fell into debt and had to sell their home in Greenfield in 1870. The father became hard to live with and was hard on his family, but James's mother kept the peace. Unfortunately she died in August of 1870 and James soon after split with his father and left the home.
James tried to get work in the newspaper field and was somewhat successful, though not consistently in his early years. He continued to write, and sent his work to his brother in Indianapolis in hopes his brother could get the work published. In the meantime he worked at different trades, selling Bibles for a time and then training as a sign painter and opening a sign shop. He cut his verbal wit writing advertising slogans for the businesses for which he made signs.
James also took part in local theater, and this experience probably helped him in his later career on the lecture circuit. He became a very well-known and popular speaker and appeared with many other well-known speakers of the day, such as Mark Twain. In fact, after a couple of appearances with Riley on the lecture stage Mark Twain refused to appear with him again because Riley's popularity exceeded his own.
Both the resources I linked to will give you much more information about James Whitcomb Riley and his life and times. But I'd like to give you a sample of his work, so here I quote the first stanza of the poem whose first line is the title of this story.
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and the gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin'; of the guineys and the cluckin' of the hens
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O it's then the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
Riley went on to write over 1,000 poems in his career and also wrote many prose works.
While James's father, Reuben, was serving in the Civil War a knock on the front door of the house one day brought a man and a young girl to the family. The girl, Mary Alice Gray, was 12 years old and an orphan needing a home. Mrs. Riley said she could take young Mary Alice, who went by Allie, in if Allie could help out around the house. So Allie came to live with the family and slept in a small room at the rear of the house upstairs. She worked in the kitchen and kept the chickens off the back porch, but was probably instrumental in instilling a sense of goblins and ghosts in young James as she was a teller of tall tales and liked to scare the young ones. James was greatly influenced by Allie and captured her essence in a poem about the orphan girl. A printer made a mistake in the title and what was supposed to be about the orphan Allie became title Little Orphant Annie. And, of course, the character Annie became famous in American culture, movies, and comics.
A German that Reuben hired to help on the family farm was dressed in very shabby and worn clothing, and this made an impression on young James. He remembered the man and later wrote about him in a poem The Raggedy Man. His character later took on a transformation and became the ever-popular Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.
Those of us growing up with TV in the 1950s will remember a show called The Life of Riley, starring William Bendix. But "The Life of Riley" got started as a term in the 1880s referring to the life that James Whitcomb Riley depicted in his poems about his beloved Indiana and the mid-West. "The Life of Riley" even became the title of a popular song made famous by Pat Rooney, Sr, a famous vaudvillean of that time.
Another poem attributed to Riley, though never published in his works, is "The Passing of the Outhouse". The older generations will remember that the outhouse was an outdoor toilet used before indoor plumbing was introduced. There was actually a romance of sorts that grew up around the old outhouse, and many stories have been told in families about episodes associated with the outhouse. The poem is a great fanciful work describing an outhouse and its features as they were associated with the various family members who used it. That this poem was not published in Riley's works was probably due to the prudishness of the times and the subject matter of the poem.
You would do well to visit the James Whitcomb Riley House in Greenfield IN and tour the home and museum. These three ladies will be glad to help you learn more, and they have many fascinating tales about young Riley's life in that house and about Annie. Patricia on the left, Patricia in the center, and Brigette on the right.
Riley's works are available in Kindle versions and because of their age they are free. Having been exposed to Riley, his life, and his work in this story I have already downloaded some books and while read them over time.