FILLING A VOID: Events kick off a week of activities to help make up for lost Riley Festival

Hometown Together began on Saturday, Oct. 3, with a birthday celebration for James Whitcomb Riley. It concludes on Saturday, Oct. 10, in downtown Greenfield. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — James Whitcomb Riley didn’t seem to mind that his guests were wearing masks to his birthday party at his namesake museum on Saturday.

He even opened the festivities with a joke. “I’d like to welcome you to the bank robbers’ society,” said Riley, otherwise known as Jon Burroughs, a Greenfield man who acts in character as the famed Hoosier Poet.

The scene was just another sign of the times in a year drastically altered by COVID-19.

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The annual birthday fete is typically part of the popular Riley Festival lineup of events, but event organizers made the tough decision in July to cancel the festival, which typically takes place the first weekend in October.

Since that announcement, festival organizers have planned ways to offer a much simpler, socially-distanced style of fall festival for 2020.

The Riley Festival Association, Riley Boyhood Home & Museum and Greenfield Main Street are collaborating to offer a week-long celebration called Hometown Together, which kicked off Saturday, Oct. 3, and runs through next Saturday, Oct. 10.

The Depot, the restaurant and event venue taking over the iconic grain tower in downtown Greenfield, is also hosting an event later this week.

Organizers hope the festivities will give people plenty of reasons to come out and support local merchants who might be struggling due to the cancellation of this year’s Riley Festival, which typically brings thousands of people to downtown Greenfield.

“When we canceled back in July, we informed the businesses, and some said it would put into question whether they could continue to operate,” said Dave Berard, president of the Riley Festival Association.

A committee was formed to see what could be done to support those businesses this fall. What they came up with was a week-long celebration featuring fun events designed to bring people downtown, including a shoppers game sheet which encourages people to visit downtown Greenfield businesses.

Riley’s annual birthday party kicked off the week’s festivities. A crowd gathered Saturday at Lizabuth Ann’s Kitchen to enjoy cupcakes and poetry readings to celebrate the hometown poet, who was born Oct. 7, 1849.

The event showcased the venue, which was drastically refurbished and expanded from the previous stand-alone space and now connects seamlessly to the museum. The facility, which is available to rent, has been well received since it opened to the public in July 2019.

“We’re booked through the end of the year and starting into next year,” said Stacey Poe, the museum coordinator.

“When work started on it, I don’t think anybody could have imagined the positive impact we were creating,” she said.

“The fact it’s so popular just confirms that downtown Greenfield is a fabulous place to be,” said Greenfield city planner Joanie Fitzwater, who attended Saturday’s event.

Even without the Riley Festival taking place this year, she hopes shoppers are still drawn to Greenfield’s historic downtown this week to take part in the planned activities.

The Riley Festival Association created a shopping pass that encourages shoppers to visit at least 10 of the establishments listed on the shopping sheet game cards, to enter a drawing for gift cards and cash prizes. Stickers for the game cards, available at all participating retailers, are collected at each stop.

No purchase is necessary, but those who do make a purchase will receive a playing card from each business they patronize. They can collect an unlimited number of cards throughout the week, but only five can be used to make a winning poker hand at the end of the week.

On Friday, Oct. 9, Greenfield Main Street will hold a Main Street Harvest Market on Courthouse Plaza, just south of the county courthouse. Vendors will be selling a variety of items, like clayworks and handcrafted soaps, from 2 to 9 p.m.

“A portion of vendors will be at Courthouse Plaza and a portion of them will be at The Depot, which is hosting a big open house on Friday. That’s why we’re partnering with them. They are having a DJ, food trucks, kids activities and tours of The Depot,” said Debra Smith, executive director of Greenfield Main Street.

From 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, the Riley Festival Association will play host to the Hometown Together culmination event on Courthouse Plaza, where shoppers can turn in their game sheets and playing cards for a chance at gift cards and cash prizes.

A food truck, entertainment and fun kids’ activities will lend to the fall festival atmosphere on Saturday. Drawings for the gift cards and the three best Poker Hands will take place at 5 p.m. The highest poker hand will receive $150, the second highest $75, and third highest $25.

Many of the local businesses plan to stay open late Friday night for last-minute shoppers wanting to get their cards stamped or collect playing cards, Smith said.

While he knows it can’t take the place of the Riley Festival’s impact, Berard hopes this week’s shopping promotion and downtown events will at least help support and sustain downtown businesses in an unpredictably challenging year.

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