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
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
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
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
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
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?