James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum

Another Riley home? A couple years ago, I toured the house where he lived as an adult at Lockerbie Square in Indianapolis. I was surprised to learn that his childhood home existed.

In fact, the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum is celebrating its 80th year as a museum! The city of Greenfield bought the house in 1935 with the idea of making it a museum.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Riley’s childhood home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door is the museum. Check in at the museum. A docent will accompany you to the house and walk you through an hour or so tour of it. The tour winds through the garden and ends with a seven-minute film at the museum.

Phyllis, my tour guide, was an absolute pleasure. She clearly enjoys giving tours and sharing stories about Riley. She paced the tour to the attendees, entertaining questions and engaging in conversation. Through the tour, she sprinkled in quotes from Riley’s poems.

In 1844, James’ parents married and lived in a log cabin that his father built on 3 to 5 acres of land—behind the current house. James was born in that cabin. After three children arrived, his father Reuben set out to build a house, which took three years to complete (!). (He also built a lot of the furniture that populates the house, some of which comes from their log cabin days.)

Reuben was a lawyer, a state legislator, and a soldier in the Civil War. Unfortunately, after the Civil War, the Rileys owed back taxes. They slowly sold off properties and then the house in 1866. James’s mother was devastated, and James vowed that when he got rich, he would buy back the house. (He did, but it wasn’t until after her death in 1870.)

The various rooms of the house are filled with furniture and knick-knacks, including items that Riley mentions in his poems, such as the ceramic dog and sample clock on the mantel or the what-not shelf in the front room.

The front formal parlor contains a wonderful Steinway piano that the museum keeps maintained. (We were encouraged to play it.) The piano is not original to the house but a gift from a Dr. Fletcher. (Hmmm. A Fletcher family was important in 19th century Indianapolis.) The floor had to be reinforced to support the 800 lbs of the piano. (Note: The front formal parlor is not the only room that has been reinforced.)

The other front room is a law office. (James’s father was a lawyer.) The pièce de résistance in this room is the partner desk that Reuben made—a large desk that allows one person to work on each side, divided down the middle by a large partition of cubbyholes. The desk had wandered away from the house between the Rileys losing the house in 1866 and the city buying it in 1935. In recent years, a local company, Irving Materials, stumbled across the desk at an auction, bought it, and donated it to the museum. (Kind of a wild story with a happy ending.)

As we prepared to ascend the front staircase—I marveled at the steep descent of the banister and vocalized my speculation that probably it was too steep for children to slide down—Phyllis paused to tell us about Mary Alice “Allie” Smith.

Mary Alice was an orphan who ended up at the Riley home, working for her board and keep. She would often tell the children stories of goblins—her stories ended up in Riley’s poems and she herself was the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie among other works. (Side note: The work was originally called Little Orphant Allie but the printer could not read Riley’s handwriting.)

The goblins, according to Mary Alice, lived under the stairs. (We got to see the room where the goblins lived—a dark and dank space under the stairs fit for goblins—at the end of the tour.) Apparently, she also had names for each of the stair steps. (The names are lost to time.)

The main bedroom upstairs houses a four-poster butternut bed so heavy that the law office below had to be reinforced. Our docent pointed out various objects in the room: washing and drinking pitchers and containers, a foot warmer, a boat jack, a steeple clock.

The one thing I hadn’t seen before—the sewing bird, a little metal bird fastened to a table. On top of the bird is a place to hold a sewing thimble. The bird’s beak holds a piece of cloth as you sew it—kind of like using pins to pin a hem in place before you sew it.

A rocking chair, a sewing chest (both made by Reuben), and a Howe Company sewing machine occupy the space between this bedroom and the next. The docent explained that early sewing machines—because they were machinery—were used by men, not women. (Hmmm…believable but true?)

The second bedroom was for the girls. The rope bed, with an 1853 coverlet on top, stores a trundle bed underneath. And we were given a demonstration and explanation about tightening the ropes. The room contains some curious objects: a curling iron (I thought of a scene in the movie The Little Women when some of the girls were getting ready for a party), a glove stretcher (the docent asked us to guess what it was…none of us were very imaginative), bottles of squill (a cough medicine made with turpentine!) and camphor. Phyllis pointed to a footstool—a cylindrical object with two wooden pegs on either side—and referred to it as a blind pig footstool. (I haven’t found any information about such a footstool.)

Through the second bedroom towards the back of the house is dormer room with slanted ceiling—the boys’ bedroom. The only access is through the girls’ room or through an alcove to back stairs that originally went outside. (The stairs now end in the kitchen.)

A little door in the room opens to a rafter room (which reminded me of the room where they hid runaway slaves at the Levi Coffin house). This room, keeping with the theme of the day, housed some goblins. We took turns looking through the rafter room door at two shiny goblin eyes peering at us.

A painting of lard hogs by John Keefer, who taught Riley to painting (his initial profession), hangs on the wall. The hogs do not look too happy. They are probably aware of their impending fate.

The alcove with the back stairs is where Mary Alice slept. A thin pallet lay on the floor, and a window overlooks the back yard—probably the best view in the house, our docent mused. The steps of the back stairs are different heights, an intentional design of Reuben’s as a warning from intruders who would stumble and wake the house.

The kitchen is not original, though I do not know when it was added. It is filled with lots of artifacts, including the ever-present pie safe. Our docent demoed the polishing box, which was used to sharpen knives, and picked the handle-less cup and saucer out of the dishes and asked use how they could use a handle-less cup. (And this is where knowledge of history comes in handy. I thought of the cup and saucer metaphor for the House and Senate. Like the saucer, where you pour out hot liquids to cool before consuming them, the Senate is where ideas from the House can cool before acting on them by turning them into laws.)

A small narrow room between the kitchen and the foyer holds several photos, a spinning wheel, and the entryway to the room beneath the stairs where the goblins live. Next to it is the dining room, which another little closet similar to the rafter room, where—you guessed it—goblins live.

Another John Keefer painting hangs in the dining room. An Enemy in Camp — Where is He? Could we determine what was special about the painting? Hmmm…the painting was of a turkey vulture and chickens. Why was there a large off-white shape in the center of the painting? My eyes couldn’t make it out. It turns out that this center off-white shape was key; it was the shape of a silver fox, an image of the South, among the birds. The fox in the hen house, so to speak.

In between the dining room and the front formal parlor is an informal parlor full of interesting tidbits. I noticed a stereoscope on the table, similar to the one I recently saw in the Swiss Heritage Village. A large dulcimer lay on another table. And in the corner is another Reuben-made desk from their log cabin days.

Phyllis then led us outside through the flower and herb garden and pointed out the pixie garden. A surprising number of bumblebees enjoyed the gardens, and I saw a butterfly house in the midst of flowers. I was stopped by a curious site on the climbing passionflower plant—big round pods. I had never seen maypops on passionflower plants before, which made me wonder: was I simply unobservant or were the passionflower plants that I previously saw deficient in some way?

The tour ended in the museum with an amusing seven-minute film of Riley played by an actor. The film, as Phyllis described it, really tied together all the bits of the tour. The museum itself is an interesting collection of tidbits, including tins and packages of the Hoosier Poet brand (like the items I saw in the kitchen at the Gene Stratton-Porter house).

And there was the story of Riley’s Edgar Allen Poe hoax. Riley was born on the day that Poe died—October 7, 1849. But that was not the only connection between the two poets. Before Riley became known as a poet, he struggled to get his poems published in eastern periodicals. To prove his point—that snobbish eastern periodicals only publish poems by already famous poets—Riley “discovered” a long-lost Poe poem. An Indiana (not eastern periodical) published it, and later when the forgery was discovered, Riley was fired from his job at a different newspaper.

I can almost hear Mary Alice’s admonishments to the children against doing something bad, words that are immortalized in Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie:

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you

No goblins at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum, only lots of stories and artifacts from his life. The tour of the house and the museum are definitely worth a stop.

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