It was a cool summer day in late June when we started for Louisville, Kentucky. There were five of usall mature women. I was at the wheel of our Harvest-Gold Chevrolet. The meeting we were headed for was the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. We were all in high spirits. We don't get an opportunity such as that every day. One lady was from Hannibal, one from Wausau, one from Sheboygan, and one, I believe, from Eagle River.
After a night spent in mid-Indiana we continued on our way. It was in Greenfield that one of our greatest experiences occurred. A member of our wide-awake group suddenly leapt forward in her seat as she reported excitedly, 'Oh Look! The home of James Riley!' My immediate response had to be that of a poet.
'Do you want to stop and see it? We have ample time to get where we are going.' Agreement simultaneously rushed at me from my right, and also bubbled up from the back seat. And so it was that at a few moments past 10:00 A. M. we were admitted to the house which is preserved as the birthplace of this memorable man.
Our guide, a charming lady of about our approximate age, had her lines well learned. And to our advantage, there were also children touring the house. In no time at all she was reliving the times of Little Orphan Annie with those two small children, their two older brothers, their parents, and those five whacky poets from Wisconsin.
As we toured this famous home she kept reminding all of us of the 'little boy who wouldn't say his prayers' and then, later, couldn't be found any place. So we all entered into the spirit of the thing and we 'seeked him in the rafter room, an' cubby hole, an' press.' We also saw 'his pants and his roundabout' hanging on his closet door. I learned that a roundabout was a wide sort of blousey shirt in those long-gone days. The pants were knee length, and rather tight, I assume, from the cut of them.
We were thrilled to enter Orphan Annie's back bedroom where she slept on a pallet on the floor. It was a tiny room. We walked down the back stairs as Annie had done years before. There she had gone to start the fire in a little old iron stove, and then gone on to 'Bake the bread, and earn her board and keep.' The porch from which she 'shooed the chickens' was later enclosed, and used as a dining areamost charming.
How I wished I had that poem before me as we moved through those rooms, warm with memories of my own childhood. I loved that poem and I still love it now. I remember how deliciously I shivered at the thought of those 'Gobble-uns 'at gits you Ef you Don't Watch Out!'
Another thing I learned was the meaning of a clothes 'press' in a home of that era. It is a form of shallow closet with two large doors. Some merely had shelves. The clothes hung flat against the back of the closet, and the door was then shut. If one had put any amount of clothing in these they surely must have been 'pressed' by the door. But there were far greater wonders than a mere clothes press.
The first thing to greet a visitor's eyes was a beautiful staircase in the form of a musical note. Reuben Riley, the poet's father, had spent three years on building this, his masterpiece. It was spiral, and the stem of the note disappeared around a bend. Family pictures climbed the wall opposite this embellishment.
A fire screen table, imported from Paris, caught one's attention at once while viewing the parlor. It was a cherished possession of Elizabeth Marine Riley, the poet's mother. Mrs. Riley was a woman of 'rare refinement, a devoted, gentle, and sympathetic mother,' one reads from a booklet which can be purchased there.
Andbest of allthe Reuben Rileys were God-fearing people. The table is therethe table around which they gathered for Bible reading and prayer by the light of the 'Lincoln Drape' lamp hung with many prisms. The horse hair couch beside it is covered with a linsey-woolsey blue and white coverlet, fashioned by Mrs. Riley's hands. On this coverlet lies the cane her son, the poet, used in his aging years.
A book of poetry, a gift from Longfellow, lies on that table as well. Longfellow was a good friend. Mrs. Riley's sewing quarters contained an interesting sewer's helper, a carpet bag, a metal bed warmer she filled with hot water on cold evenings.
The high double bed was, of course, accommodated by a straw tick and feather bed. A double trundle bed pulled out from beneath the bed proper, in which to sleep the littlest ones. And most amazing of all, to me, were the two steps which lead up to the bed. If you fell out of that one, you would know it for sure.
The family was musical, that was a certainty. A dulcimer laid on an upstairs hall table. The poet is said to have rolled onto his violin as it lay on his bed, damaging it badly.
How comforting to a woman to see that old cradle in the kitchen, love goblets used at family weddings a wooden firkin for holding sugar, wicked beddy-lamps for tending the baby at night, and the needlepoint motto reading, 'I NEED THEE EVERY HOUR.'
A good woman formed that home for a great poet to grow up in. And most of all I shall remember Little Orphan Annie's remark which she made when she first fixed her wondering eyes on that fabulous staircase. She is reported to have said, 'Oh my! That stairway surely must lead straight up to heaven!' And I will have to say, I rather shared her sentiments.
Reuben Riley, adept at law as well as woodworking, built a replica of the log cabin in which the family was born on this same spot. He did not want them to forget their humble beginning. It is now kept in the doll room which was formerly Orphan Annie's quarters.
My wish is that I have brought back some memories of early school days, and that you will hunt up a book with copies of James Whitcomb Riley's poems. The best of reading to you as we enter another autumn. There is much more to tell, but why don't you go see for yourself?