Third and last in the Places in History series. Thursday's edition of the Daily Reporter had an overview of the downtown Greenfield historic district. Friday's story was of the Benbow home at Grant and East streets.
GREENFIELD — Each year, hundreds of people pass through the doors of the Mitchell House in downtown Greenfield. It’s a landmark, destination and one of the county’s largest tourist attractions.
Doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because today it’s known as the Riley Home Museum, the yellow house next door to James Whitcomb Riley’s boyhood home. It houses a gift shop, additional Riley memorabilia not on display in Riley’s home and stores part of the Riley collection not in circulation.
While the house is well-known for its new role, it has an interesting history all its own.
The four-bedroom, two-bath Queen Anne at 244 W. Main St. was built for the Mitchell family in 1894 on grounds that were once part of the Rileys’ property..
An early photo, now hanging in the museum, shows the Riley home with a small orchard where the Mitchell house would later be built.
John Fowler Mitchell and his wife, Minnie Bell, lived in the home and were close family friends of Riley’s. Mitchell was the son of prominent early businessman William Mitchell and followed his father’s footsteps in the printing business.
The home is a fine example of a Queen Anne, adorned with decorative bay windows, wide wood cornices, vertical stickwork above the wide porch and a spindle balustrade – all standard elements of often-exuberant Queen Annes.
The city bought the house in 1976 with the intention of making it part of the Riley Home complex. The house was painted a bright yellow by the city, but Brigette Jones, a hostess at the home and president of the Hancock County Historical Society, said there is no way to know for sure if that’s the original color of the home without doing a paint chip analysis.
The city still owns both homes and maintains all structures and the grounds.
The interior of the home is a mix of old and new elements. The upstairs bedrooms have remained virtually untouched, save for the addition of shelving and storage units to organize the part of the Riley Old Home Society’s collection not currently on display.
Also original is much of the home’s entryway.
Visitors to the museum pass through a front door with the original leaded glass and walk into a foyer with a decorative parquet wood floor that’s been preserved.
The remainder of the first floor has been adapted to better serve as a museum. The dining room and sitting room now serve neither purpose, instead displaying parts of the Riley collection that do not fit in the home next door.
Jones explained that the Riley home is set up to look as it would have when Riley lived there as a child in the 1850s and 1860s. When that shift was made, curators had to find a place for the many Riley artifacts from the later years of his life.
“The idea was for the Riley Home to depict how life was when James lived there as a boy,” Jones explained. “We had all this stuff related to his life as a famous poet that had no business in the 1850 house.”
Enter the Mitchell house, turned Riley Museum. Inside, visitors find pieces of Riley’s adult life, many pieces from the height of his celebrity: the couch he sometimes fell asleep on as an adult, original copies of his work and posters from his reading tours.
The back portion of the first floor houses the gift shop – where the kitchen once was – and has seen considerable change. Slatwall has been hung to display books, Riley-era games and other trinkets. A desk and cash register area has been installed; a porch was converted into a break room for museum hostesses.
The home is not just significant for its architecture, or current role as a museum, however.
The Mitchell family left an important legacy on the city of Greenfield.
Historian Joe Skvarenina said the Mitchells were one of city’s founding families. William Mitchell – John Fowler’s father – was one of Greenfield’s earliest businessmen. The printing company he founded operated until recently under the name Mitchell-Fleming Printing.
“They were one of the first families of Greenfield,” Skvarenina said. “They were very important to the community in the early days.”
The Mitchells not only helped build Greenfield, but also, to a certain extent, Riley.
Riley’s first published poem was printed in the Hancock County Democrat, a newspaper founded by the Mitchell family. Their printing company was the first to publish Riley’s poetry in book form.
John Mitchell was a good friend of Riley’s, and Mitchell’s wife, Minnie Bell, was an ardent supporter of his work. Skvarenina said Minnie Bell helped found Riley Days throughout the state, the beginning of the annual festival celebrating the poet that still brings thousands to Greenfield each October.
Minnie Bell also wrote several books about Riley, one of which is still available at the museum in her former home.
The Mitchell family has also donated numerous items to the Riley Collection, including letters, first editions and other relics.
“The Mitchell family has a long association with Riley,” Jones said, “so it’s kind of appropriate (that the house is the museum).”