BY CHRISTINE SCHAEFER
GREENFIELD – This year, the Riley Boyhood Home and Museum celebrates 80 years as a tourist destination for to more than 1,800 visitors who come each year to celebrate Greenfield’s native son.
Driving down Main Street, it’s hard to miss the historic home where James Whitcomb Riley spent his formative years: a gleaming white two-story home with green shutters, its front porch flanked by rocking chairs inviting visitors to stop by and stay awhile. A more recent addition is a life-size bronze statue of Riley, Greenfield’s poet laureate, as an adult, seated on a park bench in front of the home.
A slate of activities is planned to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the home’s opening as a tourist destination, said Stacey Poe, coordinator of the home and accompanying museum next door.
The new PBS documentary, “James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet,” will be shown Oct. 6 and 7 in a tent behind the Riley home at 250 W. Main St. The film on Riley’s life includes snippets of Hancock County footage, including the recent unveiling of the Reading with Riley statue in front of the museum and interviews with county tourism director and former Riley Home coordinator Brigette Cook Jones.
Poe also has brought in literary scholar and historian Rob Velella, an actor who portrays famous writers. He won’t be dressing as Riley but another famous author — Edgar Allen Poe — when he visits the home Oct. 7 and 8.
Velella points out an intriguing connection between Riley and Poe.
“Their lives overlap for less than a day,” Velella said. “Poe died on Oct. 7, 1849, and Riley was born on Oct. 7, 1849.”
Which might or might not explain a stunt Riley once pulled to prove a point and boost his fame, Velella added.
In 1877, the Kokomo Dispatch printed what was believed to be a newly discovered Edgar Allan Poe poem.
The poem, “Leonainie,” was printed and reprinted in newspapers across the country for three weeks before it was found to be a hoax – written in the handwriting and style of Poe but penned by none other than James Whitcomb Riley.
Riley set out to show that “even a bad poem by a really famous poet would get more attention than a really good poem by a less famous poet,” Velella said.
Velella’s program, “Edgar Allan Poe: Master of the Macabre,” introduces audiences to Poe.
“The legend of Poe is out of control compared to the reality of the historical Poe,” Velella said. “Most people are surprised to learn that Poe was a lot more normal than they learned in high school.”
As to why Poe continues to be popular more than 160 years after his death, Velella concedes that Poe has “a cool factor.”
“Poe is one of the first required-reading authors that young people are willing to admit they like,” Velella said.
Also performing will be Chadwick Gillenwater, who goes professionally by the name of Professor Watermelon. Part of Gillenwater’s traveling show repertoire includes performing as James Whitcomb Riley. Gillenwater will be in attendance at the birthday celebration Oct. 8 to present his program, “The Artistic Legacy of James Whitcomb Riley.”
Eighty years ago, Riley’s sister-in-law Julia, who lived in the house until 1935, had no inkling her brother-in-law’s childhood home would someday be a tourist destination.
Before moving to California to be with her children, Julia Riley auctioned off many of the household furnishings. In 1937, the home was purchased by the city of Greenfield, which still manages the maintenance of the building, and the Riley Old Home Society took over as caretakers of the remaining artifacts.
When the city made the decision to open the house to the public, many of the auctioned items were returned.
“Stuff came from family members, too,” Poe said, “and pieces from that time period.”
In the early 70s, the city acquired the property next door to the Riley home — 244 W. Main — and the Riley Museum opened up to house the overflow of Riley memorabilia.
Poe defines the difference in missions between the two buildings: the Riley home represents the years of Riley’s childhood from 1850 to 1864; the museum is more representative of his fame and life afterward.
The coming week of events celebrates history, but Poe is excited for the future, too. On her watch, the museum has adopted a new logo and a new brochure.
Plans also are underway to break ground on a new building behind the house — ‘Lizbeth Ann’s Kitchen — that will create event space for the Riley Home.
Poe has plans for holiday events for the Riley Boyhood Home and hopes to continue her goal of keeping Riley’s legacy alive.
“I think it’s hard for people to believe that Riley was famous in his own time — like a rockstar or movie star today,” Poe said. “My goal is to bring Riley and the home into today while still celebrating the history.”
IF YOU GO
80th anniversary of the Riley Boyhood Home and Museum events are free and open to the public:
Riley Boyhood Home and Museum Open House: 1-4 p.m. at the home, 250 W. Main St.
Refreshments; live music from the Punkin Holler Boys from 2 to 4 p.m.; free house tours
Screening of “James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet” documentary: 5 p.m. at the Riley home, 250 W. Main St.
Screening of “James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet” documentary: 1:30 p.m. at the Riley home.
Producer Ron Prickel will answer questions following the show.
Rob Velella performs as Edgar Allan Poe: 3-4 p.m. at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St.
James Whitcomb Riley Birthday Celebration: 1-4 p.m. at the Riley home.
Cake, punch, performance by Greenfield Community Choir. Free home tours available.
Chadwick Gillenwater performs as James Whitcomb Riley: 2 p.m. at the Riley home.
Rob Velella performs as Edgar Allan Poe: 3 p.m. at the home, 250 W. Main St.