James Whitcomb Riley

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The poet James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana on October 7, 1849. To give you an idea how long ago that was, he was about 12 years old when the U.S. Civil War started. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were both born around the same time. At the time of his death on July 22, 1916, Riley was a beloved figure across the country, but especially so in Indiana. Many of his poems were funny. People really liked that. During his life he traveled the country giving live shows reading his poetry. In his time, he was a rock star!

James Whitcomb Riley’s death was such news it made front page headlines in major newspapers all across the country. One of the newspaper headlines about his funeral said, “35,000 People Pass Casket of Indiana Poet”. That is a lot of people paying their respects.

Riley Recordings

During Riley’s life people did not have radios in their homes yet. In order to listen to music or readings people used a hand cranked phonograph machine to listen to audio recordings on cylinders. Today you can play a digital file of an audiobook on your phone or computer. In 1912 Riley recorded poetry readings for the Victor Talking Machine Company so that people could listen at home. You can listen to old Riley Recordings in The Library’s digital collection. Open the James Whitcomb Riley Recordings to listen to the man himself reading his own poetry.

James Whitcomb Riley Books

Mr. Riley’s most famous poems for children were and still are, “Raggedy Man,” “The Little Orphant Annie,” “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” and “The Old Swimmin’ Hole.” You can read them right now in these free e-books from IUPUI. I recommend the deliciously scary “The Little Orphant Annie.” Annie is a great storyteller! She tells the story of why you better mind your parents because “The gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out!” To read it click on the first book below, Riley Child Rhymes, and then click on page 23.

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Websites, Activities & Printables:

In the spirit of another beloved Hoosier, David Letterman:

Top 10 Ways to Know James Whitcomb Riley was a Rock Star of his Time:

10. His book Rhymes of Childhood, published in 1912, can still be found today over 100 years later. Find it at the library or go to an online bookstore. There are not very many books still available from that long ago!

9. In the late 1890s Riley encouraged the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. He wrote Dunbar a letter of recommendation that helped get Dunbar’s work published.

8. When Riley died, the President of the United states, Woodrow Wilson, and the Vice-President of the United States, Thomas Riley Marshall (who was from Columbia City, Indiana), both sent messages of condolence to his family. The Governor of Indiana allowed Riley to lay in state at The Indiana Statehouse Rotunda so that people could come pay their respects. Until that time, only Abraham Lincoln had been honored in that way.

7. Greenfield, IN, his birthplace, and Indianapolis, IN, his home for over 20 years, fought over the location of Riley’s grave. Over Riley’s Dead Body: Indy’s Weirdest Civic Fight. Indianapolis won. He grave is at Crown Hill Cemetery in a tomb at the top of a hill, the highest point in Indianapolis.

6. Both Riley’s boyhood home in Greenfield, IN and his adult home in Indianapolis, IN are museums and on the National Register of Historic Places.

5. Named in his honor, the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children opened in 1924. In 1955 the hospital added Camp Riley, a camp for youth with disabilities.

4. In 1940, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 10-cent stamp honoring Riley.

3. Commissioned in 1942 during World War II, the cargo ship SS James Whitcomb Riley bears his name.

2. There used to be a Hoosier Poet Brand of coffee, oatmeal, vegetables, cigars and more.

1. James Whitcomb Riley donated the land Central Library is built on. The bronze gates at the main entrance on St. Clair Street were purchased with pennies donated by children. The bronze tablets on each of the iron gates say: The gates are the gift of the children of Indianapolis in loving remembrance of their friend James Whitcomb Riley

Famous Hoosiers for Kids

A look at an interesting group of the Indiana born or raised who have contributed to the history and life of the state and the nation from a millionaire businesswoman to a Disney animator to a lighthouse keeper (in Indiana!) as well as a U.S. President. #indyplkids

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