James Whitcomb Riley, Boyhood Home & Museum; Greenfield, Indiana

I LOVED this place! Sitting right on the National road (Also called the Cumberland Road, or route 40), is the boyhood home of one America’s great poets, James Whitcomb Riley, sometimes known as the Hoosier poet, because of his connection to the Hoosier state (Indiana). Now I admit a personal connection because his most famous poem, Little Orphant Annie, was one of the few poems I ever memorized (for school), and as Riley is one of those writers who wrote what he knew, all of his poems that stem from his childhood experiences lovingly reference specific details of this home.

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With respect to his poetry: for those who don’t already know this, Riley and Mark Twain were both part of the same movement in American literature to elevate and appreciate the “authentic” phonetic voice of the American people when writing, rather than to use the “Formal” voice of educated society. Hence the “Orphant” is NOT a typo, it’s how the word orphaned was pronounced in 1885 by the average person then living in the Hoosier state (Indiana), and this technique is used through the whole poem (most of his poems actually) so that if you carefully read it OUT-LOUT, but AS WRITTEN you can’t but help but switch into something approximating the accent intended  (which is different from how Twain had Tom or Huckleberry sound, as the accents in the deep south were different).

Little Orphant Annie [first stanza only]
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

To this day I have an image indelibly marked into my brain as my grade school English teacher stood before the class and recited Little Orphant Annie to us, using a completely different accent than she normal spoke in… and then assigned for us to memorize it so that we could each recite it in class the following week. I LOVED that poem and can (pretty much) still do a decent job of recalling it to this day (so that the fact that the docent was reciting various stanzas of the poem, as she took us through the house, made it doubly meaningful for me).

One of the things to be aware of before heading here is that the museum building closes at 4pm, and the last tour of his childhood home, which is the adjacent home  (and you are NOT allowed to enter it without the docent guiding you) begins at 3:15pm. I arrived at 3:25 (immediately after a group of three other women) only to be told, “we’re sorry, you’re too late for the tour, please come another day).

The museum, which is where you enter via an adjacent house (the main house is locked up at all time, except for when the docent allows you in) is sort of major non-event in my opinion, and NOT really worth visiting. It’s mostly a holding area should more people arrive at once than the available docent can safely escort through the home next door. It has a tiny little excuse for a gift shop located in a back room of the house alongside the offices for the docents. (It has some books on CD, magnets, a few toy type things — this one shelf is pretty much it)

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And then in the main “living room” are cases holding some first editions, and pictures of his life POST when he lived in his childhood home (his adult home was in Indianapolis).

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This is an original poem, written in Riley’s own hand that they have on display

The reason his photo (below to the right) was drapped in black was because I visited the house on July 21st, 2018, and we were approaching the 102nd anniversary of his death, July 22, 1916

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the Sofa below the screen belonged to Riley, and was known to be a favorite napping place

You then are led to sit on some folding chairs and watch this short video of just under nine minutes, the highlight of the museum, which I found was also available on YouTube (so you don’t need to drive there to see it)

while researching for this blog piece I found this 20 minute documentary about Riley was on YouTube, it seems to be made by a person who visited the house (apparently more than once), and contains parts of the tour as well as a load of biographical information about Riley

Before we sat down to watch the video I had loudly commented on how sad it was that we’d JUST missed the last tour window. How much I LOVED Riley, and had even memorized Orphant Annie in school… and then recited bits of it out loud… and how sad it was that I’d driven ALL the way from Chicago only to miss the window by 10 minutes, and how I’d probably not pass this way again. I think this had the desired effect because half way through the movie the manager of the place said that even though we’d arrived late, she’d stay a bit late and give us the tour herself (which she normally never does, as she’s not a docent).

[To paraphrase the movie Wall Street, “guilt, for lack of a better word, is good” — guilt & greed, they both work as motivators. Another great motivator would be sexual desire — somewhere in the Talmud there’s a comment that but for sex no man would build a house or plant a seed — but I dont’ think I was her type. (Joke)]

So she took us outside to the home next door and let us in. A very cool point that the docent comments on repeatedly is that Riley’s father,

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His father served in the Civil war, and came back suffering from serious PTSD which essentially broke him

who was a lawyer by profession (and had been the town mayor at one point), was a member of the historic fraternal organization of The Freemasons (so-called because of claims of connection to the Masons of the medieval periods who, because of their specialized knowledge of masonry, were alone of the working classes free to wander Europe, going from castle or monetary building site, to site as needed or wanted) …

IMG_2377… his father took the group’s history seriously, to the point of designing and building (by HAND) not only a lot of the furniture in the house, including a “partner’s legal desk” AND chairs for his legal practice which he worked from his home office (it’s a two-sided desk  — she noted how at the time there were no law schools, you studied law by working with an older lawyer… so the ‘apprentice’ or Jr. Lawyer, would be on the far side supporting the older lawyer who would see customers)

IMG_2551This chest was also one he built by hand; it has no nails, but rather is put together like a puzzle and then glued. It’s very beautifully carved, and the docent said that various woodworkers who’ve come through the house have commented on how, even with today’s tools, making a chest like this is VERY hard. That it exemplifies just how skilled of a woodworker he was.IMG_2552He also built these rocking chairs and did the caning himself. The docent particularly like the way you could see how the hands had worn over time, and would imagine the family members sitting there, maybe rocking a baby to sleep.

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This ladle and bucket were also and made, the ladle is special as it is made from a coconut shell. Think about it, this is the mid 1800’s, coconuts were incredibly rare delicacies. But the position of the home directly on the National road meant that at least there were (according to the docent) an average of 90 vehicles passing a day, many of which had goods to trade. After eating the flesh of the delicacy, James’ father had the foresight to make use of the shells.

So we know that Riley’s father was a highly creative and artistic master furniture maker; but get this, he also built the ENTIRE house by himself… (although I’m sure he had help with the multi-man jobs like getting the framing for the walls up, etc.)IMG_2540.JPG

and this was INCLUDING the stairway!!!!

IMG_2548.JPGThe docent spent a lot of time telling us about how he constructed it, how he soaked and twisted the wood of the railing by hand, and put the shape of musical note at the bottom to symbolize a harmonious household. She also told us how “Orphan Annie” otherwise known as Mary Alice “Allie” Smith, had thought the staircase was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen, and had fancifully named each step.

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Photos of the original “Annie” as a child, and as an old lady

Interestingly, the poem had originally been “Little Orphant Allie’s come to our house to stay”, Allie for Alice, but the printer hadn’t been able to make sense of Riley’s handwriting and screwed it up. By the time Riley discovered the error too many copies had been printed, and the poem was already a major hit, so it stayed as Annie.

That said, if you know Riley’s poetry visiting this home is something of a treat as he references it often in his poems.

 

Little Orphant Annie [continued from above]
Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
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A ‘press’ is a built-in half closet, that’s only as deep as the distance from the interior to exterior walls. The cubby hole is a room under the stars.
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’ roundabout:–
IMG_2553
James’ pants to the left, the roundabout is a shirt with buttons around the bottom that button into the top of the pants ensuring a tidy appearance
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!
An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,
An’ make fun of ever’ one, an’ all her blood-an’-kin;
An’ wunst, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks wuz there,
She mocked ’em an’ shocked ’em, an’ said she didn’t care!
An’ thist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t
Watch

Out!
An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,

IMG_2408

Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

[Note: When looking at where Annie slept, while working at the Riley home, it’s important to remember she arrived after the Civil war had started, and James’ father was away fighing. She had been staying with relatives, but their father was also going away to war and the family didn’t feel they could afford to support her during that time. She was brought to the Riley home, as they were one of the richest families in town. Mrs. Riley

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said she couldn’t afford to pay her, as her own husband was also away at the war, but could provide free room and board. BUT, since Mr Riley was away, there was no one to build Annie a bed to put her mattress upon.]

 

A BACKWARD LOOK

Away to the house where I was born!

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⁠And there was the selfsame clock that ticked

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Note the clock on the mantel-shelf

From the close of dusk to the burst of morn,
When life-warm hands plucked the golden corn
⁠And helped when the apples were picked.
And the “chany dog” on the mantel-shelf,
⁠With the gilded collar and yellow eyes,

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The [chinese] or chany dog, on the mantel-shelf
Looked just as at first, when I hugged myself
⁠Sound asleep with the dear surprise.
And down to the swing in the locust-tree,
⁠Where the grass was worn from the trampled ground,
And where “Eck” Skinner, “Old” Carr, and three
Or four such other boys used to be
⁠”Doin’ sky-scrapers,” or “whirlin’ round”:
And again Bob climbed for the bluebird’s nest,
⁠And again “had shows” in the buggy-shed
Of Guymon’s barn, where still, unguessed,
⁠The old ghosts romp through the best days dead!
And again I gazed from the old schoolroom
⁠With a wistful look, of a long June day,
When on my cheek was the hectic bloom
Caught of Mischief, as I presume—
⁠He had such a “partial” way,
It seemed, toward me.—And again I thought
⁠Of a probable likelihood to be
Kept in after school—for a girl was caught
⁠Catching a note from me.

— James Whitcomb Riley

 

In addition to Orphant Annie, one of the other poems of Riley that even students today are sometimes taught is this one:

The Raggedy Man

O the Raggedy Man! He works fer Pa;
An’ he’s the goodest man ever you saw!
He comes to our house every day,
An’ waters the horses, an’ feeds ’em hay;
An’ he opens the shed—an’ we all ist laugh
When he drives out our little old wobble-ly calf;
An’ nen—ef our hired girl says he can—
He milks the cow fer ‘Lizabuth Ann.—
Ain’t he a’ awful good Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
W’y, The Raggedy Man—he’s ist so good,
He splits the kindlin’ an’ chops the wood;
An’ nen he spades in our garden, too,
An’ does most things ‘at boys can’t do.—
He clumbed clean up in our big tree
An’ shooked a’ apple down fer me—
An’ ‘nother ‘n’, too, fer ‘Lizabuth Ann—
An’ ‘nother ‘n’, too, fer The Raggedy Man.—
Ain’t he a’ awful kind Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
An’ The Raggedy Man one time say he
Pick’ roast’ rambos from a’ orchurd-tree,
An’ et ’em—all ist roast’ an’ hot!—
An’ it’s so, too!—’cause a corn-crib got
Afire one time an’ all burn’ down
On “The Smoot Farm,” ’bout four mile from town—
On “The Smoot Farm”! Yes—an’ the hired han’
‘At worked there nen ‘uz The Raggedy Man!—
Ain’t he the beatin’est Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
The Raggedy Man’s so good an’ kind
He’ll be our “horsey,” an’ “haw” an’ mind
Ever’thing ‘at you make him do—
An’ won’t run off—’less you want him to!
I drived him wunst way down our lane
An’ he got skeered, when it ‘menced to rain,
An’ ist rared up an’ squealed and run
Purt’ nigh away!—an’ it’s all in fun!
Nen he skeered ag’in at a’ old tin can …
Whoa! y’ old runaway Raggedy Man!
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
An’ The Raggedy Man, he knows most rhymes,
An’ tells ’em, ef I be good, sometimes:
Knows ’bout Giunts, an’ Griffuns, an’ Elves,
An’ the Squidgicum-Squees ‘at swallers the’rselves:
An’, wite by the pump in our pasture-lot,
He showed me the hole ‘at the Wunks is got,
‘At lives ‘way deep in the ground, an’ can
Turn into me, er ‘Lizabuth Ann!
Er Ma, er Pa, er The Raggedy Man!
Ain’t he a funny old Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
An’ wunst, when The Raggedy Man come late,
An’ pigs ist root’ thue the garden-gate,
He ‘tend like the pigs ‘uz bears an’ said,
“Old Bear-shooter’ll shoot ’em dead!”
An’ race’ an’ chase’ ’em, an’ they’d ist run
When he pint his hoe at ’em like it’s a gun
An’ go “Bang!—Bang!” nen ‘tend he stan’
An’ load up his gun ag’in! Raggedy Man!
He’s an old Bear-shooter Raggedy Man!
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
An’ sometimes The Raggedy Man lets on
We’re little prince-children, an’ old King’s gone
To git more money, an’ lef’ us there—
And Robbers is ist thick ever’where;
An’ nen—ef we all won’t cry, fer shore
The Raggedy Man he’ll come and “splore
The Castul-halls,” an’ steal the “gold”—
An’ steal us, too, an’ grab an’ hold
An’ pack us off to his old “Cave”!—An’
Haymow’s the “cave” o’ The Raggedy Man!—
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!
The Raggedy Man—one time, when he
Wuz makin’ a little bow-‘n’-orry fer me,
Says “When you’re big like your Pa is,
Air you go’ to keep a fine store like his—
An’ be a rich merchunt—an’ wear fine clothes?—
Er what air you go’ to be, goodness knows?”
An’ nen he laughed at ‘Lizabuth Ann,
An’ I says “‘M go’ to be a Raggedy Man!—
I’m ist go’ to be a nice Raggedy Man!”
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!

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