Sunday, October 6, 2013

James Whitcomb Riley: The Hoosier Poet ~ by Ramona K. Cecil


Each year about this time when the thermometer begins to drop along with the turning leaves, I’m reminded of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “When the Frost is On the Punkin.” In his trademark 19th Century Hoosier dialect, Riley perfectly captures the changing of the seasons, his words etching on the reader’s consciousness a vivid Norman Rockwell-like scene. I want to nod in agreement and whisper, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel,” as the long-remembered words drift again into my mind;

“They’s something kindo’ hearty-like about the atmusfere                                   

When the heat of summer’s over and the cool of fall is here—

Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,

And the mumble of the hummin’ birds and buzzin’ of the bees;

But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze

Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days

Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—

When the frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock.”



James Whitcomb Riley
Those lines still bring a mist to my eyes. Oh, who is James Whitcomb Riley, you ask? Known as the Hoosier Poet, and the Children’s Poet, Riley was born October 7, 1849 in Greenfield, Indiana, a few miles east of Indianapolis. Over his lifetime, he authored hundred of poems, many inspired by his childhood memories of growing up in rural, small town Indiana, and written from a child’s point of view.


As a Hoosier, a poet, and the daughter of poets myself, I became aware of James Whitcomb Riley and his poetry at a tender age. I remember sitting and listening to my mom or dad read to me and my two siblings from one of their two volumes of The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley. Through his poems, Riley amused us with the antics of Little Orphant Annie and The Raggedy Man, turned us wistful and a bit melancholy with his reminiscences of The Old Swimmin’ Hole and Out To Old Aunt Mary’s, and he even scared us a little with The Nine Little Goblins.
James Whitcomb Riley's childhood home in Greenfield, Indiana

James W. Riley & siblings.
Poet on far right
The third of six children, James Whitcomb was born into a middle class family; his father was a Greenfield attorney who named his son after the then governor of Indiana. Aside from being an unenthused student and somewhat of a mischief-maker—he finally graduated eighth grade at the age of twenty—the poet seems to have had an idyllic childhood until his father left home to serve in the Civil War. During James’ childhood years, his father often brought home disadvantaged people and gave them jobs. James Whitcomb’s famous poem, Little Orphant Annie was based on Mary Alice Smith, a twelve-year-old orphan the Riley family took into their home. The girl, only slightly older than James and his siblings, would entertain the other children around the fireplace with stories of witches and goblins, always ending with a warning for children who misbehaved; “And the goblins will get you, if you don’t watch out!” The character of The Raggedy Man was based
on a German tramp James’ father hired to work around the Riley home.


Reuben Riley, James' father
When his father returned from the war partially paralyzed, the family fell on hard times. Though James’ first love was writing poetry, it brought in no money. In his early adulthood he worked as a painter, sold Bibles, and even patent medicines. In 1871, he started a business painting and maintaining signs on which, the advertisements were written in verse.


During this time, he began sending poetry to his brother in Indianapolis. Acting as James’ agent, the brother offered the poetry to an Indianapolis newspaper for free.


For a time, Riley joined in a venture with some friends, traveling around Indiana painting billboard-like signs on the sides of barns and other large buildings. Still, he continued to write his poetry, submitting it to newspapers and magazines with some success in sales. He solicited and received an endorsement from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which aided him in that effort.


He worked as a journalist for several different Indiana newspapers, which allowed him to publish his poetry in their pages. In 1879, he took a job with the Indiana Journal. That job led to acquaintances who encouraged Riley to begin reading his poetry on lecture tours.

Riley's "Old Swimmin' Hole at Brandywine Creek
  near Greenfield, Indiana

The tours proved both popular and profitable and led to the publication of Riley’s first book of poetry, The Ole Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems.

James Whitcomb Riley with school children

Riley loved to read his poetry to children. Though he had serious, long term relationships with a couple different women, he never married; something he regretted in his later years.

Riley's home on Lockerbie Square,

For the last twenty-three years of his life, James Whitcomb Riley lived in a two-story brick home in the historic Lockerbie Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. That home, and Riley’s childhood home in Greenfield, are now museums honoring the life and work of their famous resident.


By the time of his death on July 22, 1916, James Whitcomb Riley was a much beloved, world renowned poet with vast fame and fortune. Of his many honors, the greatest is arguably is the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, named for him. This weekend, his hometown of Greenfield, Indiana will hold their annual Riley Festival in honor of their famous son. 

James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children
Indianapolis, Indiana


The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley includes over a thousand different poems. These verses had a profound influence on my own writing, and I treasure the aged and worn copy I inherited from my parents. If you are not familiar with Riley’s poetry, I urge you to check out a copy at your local library. Or, as Little Orphant Annie might say, “Er the Gobble-uns ’ll git you
              Ef  you


Ramona Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories is her home state of Indiana.

Check out her latest releases at



  1. I had never heard of James Whitcomb Riley, but I will definitely be checking this out. Loved all the background information on him as well. Thanks for sharing!
    tscmshupe [at] pemtel [dot] net

    1. Thanks, Sally. I think you'll really enjoy his poems. They give you an authentic peek into 19th Century Indiana. :)

  2. For some odd reason, your post just arrived in my in-box, Ramona. I'm so glad I didn't miss it altogether. I've heard of Riley all my life, but this short biography is very touching and informative. Thanks for sharing such a lovely story with us.

    1. Hi, Louise! I've stopped trying to figure out computers and such technology. LOL Glad you got it, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. James Whitcomb Riley is one of my favorites. :)

  3. Hi Ramona, this was so lovely! I've never heard of James Whitcomb Riley, so it was a real treat to meet him and read his poem. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Hi, Carrie! As a Hoosier, I've just always assumed everyone is acquainted with Riley and his writing. Then I realized everyone doesn't live in Indiana. LOL Glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you get a chance to read more of Riley's poetry.

  4. I am a Hoosier living in Texas. Thank you for bringing out James Whitcomb Riley's poems. Now I feel truly ready for Halloween!

    1. Hi, Carol! My eldest daughter is also a Hoosier residing in Texas. :) Glad my post and Riley's poems brought you a reminder of Indiana in the fall. :) What she misses most at this time of year is persimmon pudding. LOL

  5. I grew up, knowing about James Whitcomb Riley, & his poetry, but never knew much about him. Thanks for the interesting post, Ramona!

  6. I enjoyed the short stories about her and decided to to run over to the museum again
    I enjoyed and appreciated the tour by Stacy Poe. She's very good with a colorful view of Riley's family home
    I guess I'll go to Locker Square and visit his later personal home too
    I've been a fan since my childhood when our Dad read Riley's poems too us every season every year. Riley used to come to Dad,'s grade school and share his poems. That:s over a 100 yrs ago. My father died at age almost 95. I am now 88
    Thanks for the refresher presentation.