GREENFIELD – It’s not often the locals get to sing “Happy Birthday” to their town’s poet laureate, especially when he’s 163 years old.
But an ardent group of well-wishers braved an unseasonably cool Sunday afternoon and crowded the sidewalk in front of the James Whitcomb Riley Old Home and Museum to sing and share cake with Greenfield’s literary father as part of this year’s Riley Festival.
Looking remarkably well and agile for his age, Riley himself, also known as Jeff Kuehl, a performer who has portrayed Riley at multiple venues throughout the state for 11 years, accepted the acclaim, served cake and exhorted his patrons to read a poem every night.
“Go home tonight and read ‘Elmer Brown,”’ Kuehl told 6-year-old Micah Freeman of Greenfield.
“He was always surrounded by children. They always loved him,” said Patricia Miller, a hostess at the Riley home who greeted visitors. “And if you went to school in Indiana you had to memorize Riley poems, usually in the fourth or fifth grade.”
Prior to 2009, the home and museum held a small gathering for children honoring Riley’s birthday, Oct. 7, on the grounds. But it was difficult attracting visitors outside the festival boundaries, said hostess Brigette Jones.
Now in its fourth year, Riley’s birthday party was originally intended to lend a little more of Riley to the city’s festival.
“One of the comments we got at the home was that the Riley Festival doesn’t have a lot to do with Riley,” Jones said. “We thought this is one event that would put a little bit of Riley back into the festival and attract people to the home. After all, it is his birthday.”
Riley’s birthday wishes were sung by the Greenfield Community Choir during the party’s first three years, but this year the group performed a concert on the lawn, capped by Riley’s “The Prayer Perfect” set to music.
“This year, we decided to have a concert, and it really worked well,” Jones said. “This is probably the largest crowd we’ve ever had.”
In addition to music and cake, visitors who share the poet’s birth date were invited to sign the home’s birthday book that contains signatures of those born on Oct. 7 dating back to the turn of the century. Riley was born in 1849 and died in 1916.
Owned by the city of Greenfield and operated by the parks and recreation department, the Riley Museum and boyhood home, located at 250 W. Main St., are open from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, to Oct. 27.