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Festival's origins date to 1911

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Hancock County Historian Joe Skvarenina writes a weekly column for the Daily Reporter.
Hancock County Historian Joe Skvarenina writes a weekly column for the Daily Reporter.

The Riley Festival rolls around quickly. I hope you are having a great Riley Festival. How did it all begin?

The honoring of a great man is common to us in this country. Minnie Bell Mitchell, while attending a national meeting of the federation of clubs came up with the idea of celebrating the poet’s birthday with schoolchildren. She introduced a resolution to that effect, and the idea of a birthday celebration came to life in 1911.

The momentum reached its peek in 1912 when Riley was honored by 2,000 children at Lockerbie Street and he came to Greenfield where his car was parked at the Courthouse and passing children threw flowers. Riley was presented with a silver loving cup purchased by Professor Frank Larabee and presented by Jessie Milikan’s grandson George B. Walton. It was said that year, 1 million children from coast to coast participated in the celebration.

In 1913, Anderson, Indiana State University and Cincinnati conducted Riley Days. In 1915, Columbus, Ind., celebrated Riley Days. In 1915, Riley came to Greenfield and sat on his front porch with family members that included his nephew Ed Eitel, and with his mother’s cousin, William R. Hough and the Hough family as children marched by with flowers and threw the blossoms at the poet.

The poet’s last birthday was celebrated Oct. 7, 1915 at an event in Indianapolis. It included an afternoon festival of Riley poetry set to music and danced in pantomime. In the evening, a dinner was hosted by former Vice President Charles Wilson Fairbanks. Speakers included Gov. George Ralston, William Allen White, George Ade and former Sen. Beverage and Sen. Kern. In addition, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane suggested to various school superintendents that one of Riley’s poems be read in each schoolhouse.

Ralston proclaimed Riley Days statewide. Riley spent the following winter and spring in Miami. Riley Days was also celebrated in Miami.

He died in July 1916.

Later, the poet’s birthday was celebrated with different methods of marking Riley’s passing. The 1949 celebration, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, was probably the largest in modern times. Entertainment took place in front of the Hancock County Courthouse, and the tower of flowers became a local tradition. The Riley Festival is now focused around the Riley statue.

In 1957, Frontier Days and sidewalk sales by merchants were held downtown. In 1959, 100 children brought flowers to the statue and the parade was led by the Greenfield High School band and the local fire department. This was the beginning of the Children’s Parade of Flowers.

In time “Frontier Days” became “Sidewalk Days” and then “Riley Days.”

Enough. I have told you everything that I know and something’s I don’t. Talk to me.

You can write to Joe Skvarenina at jskvarenina@hotmail.com or in care of the Daily Reporter at 22 W. New Road, Greenfield, IN, 46140.


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