Pinching pennies

GREENFIELD — There is a process to picking the perfect penny, and Avery Spencer has mastered it.

She’s had years of practice. The 13-year-old and her father, David Spencer, scour vacation spots for those machines that press images into the copper coins. She’s learned the best pictures appear on pennies that are like new, shiny and without smudges or dings; once it’s put in a press, smoothed and stretched, the picture punched in is pristine.

The duo have collected thousands of the little souvenirs and recently got to thinking a penny press could enhance their hometown. So, they designed one with the help of a company that specializes in the devices and donated it to the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum. The device arrived just in time for the 2015 Riley Festival, which will be conducted Oct. 1 to 4 in downtown Greenfield.

For 51 cents, visitors to the historic homestead at 250 W. Main St. can purchase a pressed penny touting local history. The machine features portraits of James Whitcomb Riley, the celebrated poet and Greenfield’s most renowned resident, and famous artist Will Vawter, also a county native. Patrons can pick whether their souvenir carries the likenesses of either man or an image of Riley’s statue or his boyhood home.

The quarters collected in the machine will serve as donations to the Riley Old Home Society, which is charged with preserving and overseeing the poet’s boyhood home.

The idea to purchase the machine was all Avery’s, but her father was eager to support the endeavor.

Spencer has a special interest in local history; he grew up a few houses down from the Riley home and spent summer days taking tours of the old structure. On Vawter’s birthday, he takes his family to visit the painter’s grave.

So, when they sat down this summer to start planning and discussing what images they wanted to include on the machine, the town’s most noted figures became the obvious choices, Spencer said.

From there, the process took several months and cost the family about $4,200.

They spent time searching for and selected the best portraits of Riley and Vawter to use, along with pictures of the home and statue. They ran them past the board of the Riley Old Home Society for approval before sending them along to the company, where artists re-create the images at penny size.

The final product has been placed in the back of the Riley home. Put 50 cents and one penny in, give the wheel a crank, the machine spits out a shiny keepsake.

Spencer said he’s eager to see if the device will attract tourists to the site. The machines have a following among collectors who plan vacations to the towns and cities that have them just to get the pressings available there., for example, keeps an up-to-date list of penny machines located across the globe, and the website operates a smartphone app that pinpoints the user’s location to direct them to nearby penny presses.

The Spencers have assembled about five passport-sized books full of pennies from across the country. Family trips are never complete without Avery’s canister filled with quarters and perfect pennies, which she brings along in case they stumble upon a machine, she said.

Each coin serves as a reminder of their vacations, and some of her favorites came from a trip to Disney World, she said.

Since the machine was installed last week, a handful of visitors to the home have excitedly given it a try, and a few workers have used it for practice, said Rosemarie Pell, a Riley home hostess who gives tours of the site. Pell said she thinks the machine makes an excellent addition to the gift shop there, which offers books of Riley’s poetry and other memorabilia.

Like so many historical organizations, the Riley Old Home Society operates the home and its museum primarily through donations from the public, said Dan Riley, president of the board of directors who jokingly calls the poet “Uncle Jim” but admits he’s no relation.

Riley said he can’t thank Spencer enough for his generosity in donating the machine and allowing the group to keep any profits in generates.

“Even if it’s 50 cents a day, it all adds up,” he said. “We’re really grateful.”

Take a tour

Try out the Riley Boyhood Home and Museum’s new penny press this weekend, when hostesses are giving free tours.

An open house runs from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the home, 250 W. Main St.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or