HANCOCK COUNTY — His love of children, a flair for the written word — those things that made James Whitcomb Riley Greenfield’s favorite son will be a bigger part of the festival in his honor than ever before.

The 49th annual Riley Festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday at the intersection of State and Main streets in downtown Greenfield, kicks off Thursday afternoon and features a renewed emphasis on poetry and the people who bring it to life.

Organizers also have expanded the Riley Festival Flower Parade, which invites schoolchildren to march along the festival’s path and drop flowers at the Riley statue at the courthouse, and added more entertainment.

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The festival celebrates the birthday of James Whitcomb Riley, who penned more than 1,000 poems and grew up in Hancock County. Riley was a rock star of his time, beloved by children who brought him flowers — the origin of the flower parade celebrated today — and families who loved the writings inspired by life in 1900s Greenfield.

Throughout the years, the festival in Riley’s honor has grown to offer some 450 food and vendor booths, entertainment and children events. The four-day event draws thousands to the heart of Greenfield, who this year will be introduced to a number of new attractions.

Pushing poetry

This year, Riley Festival officials say they’re adding new opportunities for those attending to express their inner poet.

Spokeswoman Linda Lowe said organizers want to make poetry a larger part of the event in an effort to stay true to the festival’s namesake.

The festival’s board constantly seeks ways to draw in the next generation of festival-goers.

“We sort of felt that part of the festival wasn’t growing, and we wanted to make (poetry) a major focus,” she said.

Throughout the weekend, there will be several opportunities for residents to read their work — or others’ work — aloud.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Twenty North Gallery, home to the Hancock County Arts and Council at 20 N. State St., will host poetry open-mic nights from 5 to 7 p.m.

Those attending the festival are invited to come read their favorite verses to an audience. No pressure, no judges — just a chance to perform.

Around the corner, a local eatery will open its doors for a poetry contest.

Griggsby’s Station, 101 W. Main St., will host a Poetry Jam and Slam from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Jason Ammerman, an Indianapolis poet, will host the event inviting attendees to read poems before the crowd — which will help judge — with prize money set aside for the winner.

And from 1 to 2 p.m. Sunday, the annual Poets at the Podium will take place at the Hancock County Courthouse Gazebo. For this tradition, the first 20 people to sign up by 12:30 p.m. may perform a poem before a panel of judges. Participants are asked to bring three copies of their poem for the judges.

The top three winners receive prizes.

Enhancing entertainment

Each year, the Riley Festival Board is tasked with coming up with innovative ways to attract patrons to the annual event, while preserving the charm and hometown feel of the arts and crafts festival, said Anita Turner, Riley Festival board president.

“Each year, we seem to top what has been done before, and that’s the goal,” Turner said.

As they emphasize the arts, organizers have also added more free entertainment, with musical performances set up at four different locations throughout the festival.

Acts will go on at the Greenfield Banking Co. Entertainment Tent, the courthouse gazebo and the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts. Entertainment will also be hosted for the first time in the North Street Living Alley between Main and North streets.

Adding more entertainment venues will give patrons a chance to hear different music throughout the four-day event, officials said.

Honoring history

The cornerstone of the annual festival is the flower parade, a longstanding tradition that invites kids to drop flowers at the foot of a statue of the poet — the same statue originally funded by local schoolchildren’s donations.

This year, organizers are expanding the event to celebrate its 60th year, inviting anyone who has ever participated to join the fun, bringing up the tail end of the procession.

The flower parade is set for 12:30 p.m. Friday and starts at the Pennsy Trail.

Some 1,200 students representing all four county school districts are expected to participate.

The flower parade as we know it today began in 1957, said chairwoman Terry Beagle.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the event, organizers wanted to add a new element to make this year even more special, she said.

So, they opened the parade up to anyone who has participated in the past 59 years.

“They can relive their childhood and honor Mr. Riley again,” she said.

Let me entertain you

Find a list of Riley happenings, including the Daily Reporter staff’s list of don’t-miss events, on this week’s Just 4 Fun page: AX

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Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or kdeer@greenfieldreporter.com.