INDIANAPOLIS -- James Whitcomb Riley was so much more than a poet to Indiana. He was an ambassador for the state, somebody who helped put Indiana on the map in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
Now, people walking in the Lockerbie Square neighborhood can know a little more about one of the most famous Hoosiers in history. The Indiana Historical Bureau dedicated a marker in front of the James Whitcomb Riley Museum, located at 528 Lockerbie St.
“With markers, we try to have statewide significance, but with Riley, it transcends Indiana,” Casey Pfeiffer, the marker program manager for the Indiana Historical Bureau, said.
Riley was a celebrity before people were even using the word celebrity.
He was often recognized walking down the street because his face was on so many advertisements. Riley spoke at theaters across the country, selling out Madison Square Garden, said Chris Mize, the manager of the museum.
“You have an idea that a poet is somebody sitting alone in a room, writing at a desk -- Kind of an isolated figure,” Mize said. “Riley was an entertainer. He was a star. Four hundred people would come and they’d get special train tickets to see him.”
He helped forge an attitude for Indiana that people still associate with Hoosiers – the low-key, “Hoosier Hospitality.”
“The Hoosier dialect is what they attribute to Riley,” Pfeiffer said. “That’s him. He’s the Hoosier Poet. … It’s really an identity thing. That people can form that connection. Even though he was living more than 100 years ago, that impact and presence is still recognized today.”
Riley was prominent in what Mize called the Golden Age of Indiana, when writers like Riley, Booth Tarkington, Gene Stratton-Porter, and more helped bring Indiana into national significance.
The museum is where Riley spent the last 23 years of his life, when people wanted him to move to the east coast to be a bigger star in poetry and literature.
“He chose to stay in Indiana because that’s where his art came from,” Mize said. “That’s where he identified as home.”
Riley’s legacy lasts past his death in 1916. The Riley Children's Foundation was founded with the intention of building a children's hospital in his memory. It still exists, as does the Riley Hospital for Children.
“When people say, ‘What is a Hoosier?’, I think the first person to answer that question is James Whitcomb Riley,” Mize said.
Front of the marker:
"“Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) gained widespread fame performing across the U.S. from 1881-1903 and for poems written in rustic Hoosier dialect, such as “Little Orphant Annie.” He lived in this house, owned by the Nickums and Holsteins, the last 23 years of his life. To honor his legacy, a group of his friends formed the Riley Memorial Association."
Back of the marker:
"The Riley Memorial Association, which became Riley Children’s Foundation in 2003, worked with Indiana University and the Indiana Child Welfare Association to pass a 1921 bill to create a children’s hospital. In 1922, the Riley Association opened this home to the public. The James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children opened in 1924 and Camp Riley by 1955."