Right Place, Wrong Time

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Being at the right place at the right time is the ideal, but sometimes plans don’t work out and the opposite comes true. So, it was with Indiana and the Wabash and Erie Canal.

In pre-railroad, pre-highway days, transporting anything in bulk was done via water. The very reason why many early settlers came to Evansville, for example, was the ease of getting here on the Ohio River, and the ease of transporting their businesses’ wares on that same waterway. The 981 miles of the Ohio flow from Pittsburgh, PA to Cairo, IL, where the river empties into the Mississippi. Transportation from Pittsburgh on through to New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico is thus quite possible, but getting inland from the Atlantic Ocean was considerably more challenging, at least without manmade intervention.

Map of canals in New York, n.d. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/eriecanal.html

Map of canals in New York, n.d. Source: http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/eriecanal.html

Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal provided access from Albany, New York, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie, and thus through the Great Lakes into the interior of the continent. By default, that also meant that New York City, on the Atlantic Ocean, also connected to the Great Lakes via the Hudson River. At 363 miles long, the Erie Canal was both an engineering marvel and an economic success. “The canal transformed New York City into the commercial capital it remains today. Prior to the canal’s construction, the ports of Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans outranked New York in size. But the construction of the Erie Canal gave New York City (via the Hudson River) direct water access to the Great Lakes and regions of the Midwest. As the gateway to these resource-rich lands, New York soon became the nation’s economic epicenter and the primary port of entry to the United States for European immigrants. New York City’s population quadrupled between 1820 and 1850. Financing of the Erie Canal’s construction allowed the city to eclipse Philadelphia as the country’s most important banking center. The Erie Canal also provided an economic boost to the entire United States by allowing the transport of goods at one-tenth the previous cost in less than half the previous time. By 1853, the Erie Canal carried 62 percent of all U.S. trade. For the first time, manufactured goods such as furniture and clothing could be shipped in bulk to the frontier. Farmers in western New York and the Midwest now had cash to purchase consumer goods, because they could more cheaply ship wheat, corn and other crops to lucrative East Coast markets.

Hoosiers were very interested in being able to exploit this canal, thus the dream of the Wabash and Erie Canal was born. This canal would connect Ft. Wayne to Evansville. By default, this connected to the Erie Canal: from Ft. Wayne via the Maumee River to Toledo, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. In short: the Atlantic Ocean (New York City) to the Ohio River (Evansville), by water….no easy task!

Construction began in Ft. Wayne in 1832, funded initially by a federal land grant in 1827. “Passage by the General Assembly in 1836 of “An Act to provide for a general system of Internal Improvements” marks the state’s further commitment to opening Indiana for expanded trade and travel. The 1836 law provided for eight projects to construct roads, canals, and railroads throughout the state. This 1836 law resulted in financial disaster for Indiana. Construction on projects was stopped in 1839; the state was unable to pay interest on its debt in 1841.” Construction stopped between 1841-1846 as the state grappled with bankruptcy. (This led to a provision in the Indiana Constitution prohibiting the state from going into debt.) With another grant/financial restructuring, construction began anew. Beginning in Ft. Wayne in 1832, the canal reached Peru in 1837, Lafayette in 1843, Terre Haute in 1849, and finally Evansville in 1853. The longest canal in the country (468 miles long) cost approximately $8,200,000.

Map of canals in Indiana, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Map of canals in Indiana, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Building the canal was no easy feat. “Construction of a section of the Wabash and Erie Canal began with a 60-foot swath being cleared of trees and brush. A channel then was excavated so that the cross section was 40 feet wide at the top, 26 feet wide at the bottom with four feet deep sides. A 10-foot wide towpath usually was kept at least two feet above the four-feet deep water line. In some instances, when run-off threatened, the towpath was reinforced and raised a few feet. The banks were cleared of trees at least 20 feet away to prevent limbs from falling into the canal. Spoil banks sometimes were constructed behind the towpath or back-berm to buffer against flooding. Special engineering features sometimes were needed. A common example was when water from a local natural source threatened to flood the canal. In those instances, a culvert was located beneath the canal to handle the extra water flow. Locks, which raised or lowered boats from one elevation to another, and aqueducts, which allowed boats to pass over gorges and steep streams, were other examples. Bridges were needed to allow road traffic to cross over the canal.”  Much of this work was done by sheer brute force. “In Indiana, the Canal was built mostly by Irish immigrants using shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, and the horse-drawn slip-scoop. By 1837, there were 1,000 laborers employed on the state’s canal system. Accidents, fever, cholera, fights, and snakebite exacted a heavy toll on the workforce, many of whom were buried as they fell on the towpath. It has been reported that the toll in lives from the building of the Canal was one person for every six feet of completed Canal in the forty-mile stretch between the Indiana / Ohio state line and Junction, Ohio. This figure, however, has been vigorously contested by some canal historians.

Cutaway of canal boats, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Cutaway of canal boats, n.d. Source: https://www.in.gov/history/files/canalmania.pdf

Transportation on the canal was neither fast nor particularly pleasant. Cargo barges, some over 100 feet in length, were pulled along by a team of 2-3 mules, at the “brisk” pace of 4 mph. Passengers might move a bit quicker—up to 8 mph. One traveler said, “The canal boat was a long, low, narrow structure built for carrying both passengers and freight. Its cabin and sleeping berths were of the most primitive description, ill-ventilated and dimly lighted. The boat looked like an elongated floating house, the height of which had been decreased by some great pressure. It was drawn by one or two horses hitched to a long rope attached to the bow of the boat. The horses walked on a path, called the towpath, at the side of the canal, and were driven by a man or boy, who sometimes rode, sometimes walked. The boat had a rudder with which a pilot kept it in its proper place while it crept along like a great lazy turtle on the still water. Surely there never was sleepier mode of travel.” But another traveler noted the economic benefit of traveling via canal. For a canal trip from Brookville to Cincinnati, his total expenses (passage, hotel, food, day lost) were $5.50. The same trip via stage (in part because they did not run as often) would cost $10.25. Another big appeal was that the average pioneer, using tools at hand, could build his own canal craft.

Canal boat, n.d. Source: Brad Awe collection, MSS 184-0052.

Canal boat, n.d. Source: Brad Awe collection, MSS 184-0052.

Southeast corner of Vanderburgh Courthouse lawn, 5th & Vine Streets, n.d. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jstephenconn/3026392038

Southeast corner of Vanderburgh County Courthouse lawn, 5th & Vine Streets, n.d. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jstephenconn/3026392038

According to the Historic Evansville website, the canal entered Evansville parallel to State Rd. 62, and went through Wesselman Park woods to Canal Street. It turned to the northwest at 5th St., jogging near Vine Street to a basin by the old courthouse. It then went along 4th Street, crossing Ohio Street and Pennsylvania Street (Lloyd Expressway). After turning west at Indiana Street, it ended up in a basin at the corner of 7th Avenue and Indiana Street.

There were benefits accruing from the canal. In 1844, there were as many as 400 wagons a day arriving in Lafayette, lining up for hours to unload their produce onto canal transport. When the first section of the canal was completed in 1835, the surrounding counties had a population of only 12,000. Within 10 years, this number grew to 60,000, and circa 1855, stood at 150,000.

Overall, however, the canal was a financial bust. According to Ralph Gray, a professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), $8,259,244.03 was expended on the canal over the years, and only $5,477,238.41 was received in income. Unlike those in other states, much of Indiana’s canal structures were constructed from wood and thus required constant upkeep. “Despite efforts to make the Wabash & Erie Canal work, the project was impractical from the onset. Its limited use (the canal was disabled by freezing temperatures, drought, or flooding) couldn’t compete with the reliability of the railroad. Additionally, the fear that stagnant water might bring disease made the canal unpopular with Evansville citizens. By 1860, most of the southern section was no longer used, and the entire Wabash & Erie Canal from Terre Haute was abandoned in 1861. The following year, the canal bridges within the city were replaced with box culverts with fill dirt over them in 1862. This allowed access to canal waters for those businesses still needing water power for their day-to-day operations. The canal bed was filled in entirely in 1870. Several streets comprised of the old canal bed were named Canal St, explaining the multiple “Canal Streets” found in old maps and street listings.” Less than 10 years after the canal reached Evansville, it was abandoned.

Indiana’s late entry into the canal era, in hindsight, doomed its efforts. New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio had built over 1,000 total miles of successful canals by 1830. In 1830, only Pennsylvania (seventy miles) and Massachusetts (three miles) had built railroads. By 1840 in all states, the complete mileage of canals was nearly equal to the complete miles of railroads. By 1850, the complete railroad miles were roughly two and one half times the canals. By 1860, the complete railroad miles were roughly eight times the canals. The canal era had given way to railroads.” The flat towpaths did make a good platform for railways, so a portion of these were used to construct railroads that served Evansville.

For all the fact that timing is everything, and the importance of being in the right place at the right time, pioneer Hoosiers dreamed big about the Wabash and Erie Canal and how it would connect them to a wider world. The gamble might not have paid off in the manner expected, but were they wrong? You decide.

Resources Consulted:

“Canal Mania in Indiana.” Entire issue of The Indiana Historian, June 1997.

Gray, Ralph. “The Canal Era in Indiana.” Manuscript in MSS 293, the Ralph Gray collection.

“Historical Perspective: The early days of the Wabash and Erie Canal.” Tribune Star newspaper, September 18, 2016.

History Channel: Erie Canal

History of the Canal. Carroll County Wabash and Erie Canal (Canal Park in Delphi, IN)

Wabash & Erie Canal. Historic Evansville website.

Posted in American history, history, Indiana history, Local history, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Just an Old Sweet Song…”

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

1. Georgia on My Mind Sheet Music

Sheet music of Georgia on my Mind, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2XwIau9

You may know that this lyric is from “Georgia on my Mind,” but did you know that its author was not a son of the South, but rather a native Hoosier? Born in Bloomington on November 22, 1899, Hoagland Howard Carmichael, much better known as Hoagy, was the first of three children born to a father who struggled to support the family and a mother who was likely the source of his musicality. To help make ends meet, his mother played the piano for dances at Indiana University as well as to accompany silent movies. Ragtime music was all the rage, and the infant Hoagy often fell asleep to its syncopated rhythms when he accompanied his mother on her gigs.

Following the job market, the family lived for a few years in Indianapolis, where the teenage Hoagy was introduced to the hottest new musical style, jazz. WWI was raging and the 18-year- old Hoagy wanted to enlist but was too skinny. He managed to put on the required weight and signed up November 10, 1918. His was not a long enlistment as the armistice was signed the very next day and he returned home and soon back to Bloomington to try to finish high school. He began to hang out with college students, gaining instant popularity when they found out he could play jazz music. Managing to attain his high school diploma through a by-mail course, he enrolled at Indiana University in 1920 and became a Kappa Sigma brother.

Portrait shot of Hoagy Carmichael, n.d. Source: http://www.redhotjazz.com/hoagy.html

Portrait shot of Hoagy Carmichael, n.d. Source: http://www.redhotjazz.com/hoagy.html

Carmichael began law school in order to have a career that would provide him stability and a good living. He maintained a small band through his college years, and in 1922 he met someone who would become a friend and strong influence, Bix Biederbecke. He graduated in 1925 and earned his law degree in 1926, and then off to begin his legal career. “By his own account, in 1927 Carmichael worked as a law clerk in West Palm Beach, Florida. There another life-shaping incident occurred. At a radio store he happened to hear a sidewalk phonograph playing a recording of his “Washboard Blues” and he rushed over to learn more. He was so thunderstruck and impressed by the unfamiliar recording by cornetist Red Nichols’s band, that he decided to abandon law and make music his life.” (Classic, p. 7) Later that same year he composed and recorded what became one of his best- known pieces, “Stardust.” Take a listen below to a 1941 recording—the original was only instrumental. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics. Click here to listen to a 1941 recording—the original was only instrumental. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics.

Pursuing the big time, Carmichael moved to New York in 1929, where he mingled and recorded with the best musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. His music was very popular, but he was starting to lose interest in jazz. In 1936 he moved to Hollywood to follow the siren song of pop music and the glitz and glamour of “the big time.”

"To Have and Have Not" Sheet Music, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/31UMId9

“To Have and Have Not” Sheet Music, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/31UMId9

And hit it big he did! Carmichael worked as a songwriter for Paramount Pictures as well as producing songs independently. He also worked in movies as an actor, appearing in 1937’s Topper with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett (uncredited as the piano player) and 1944’s To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He hosted and appeared on popular radio and television shows, toured all over the country, and played for 2 weeks at the London Palladium. His composition, Stardust, has been recorded over 1500 times. Performers as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Wynton Marsalis have recorded Carmichael’s music. He won an Academy Award in 1952 for best original song for his collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer on “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” sung by Bing Crosby in the Frank Capra-directed Here Comes the Groom. In 1971 he was in the inaugural class inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Hoagy Carmichael died in California December 27, 1981, and was buried in Bloomington on January 4, 1982. “His family donated his archives and memorabilia to Indiana University, which in 1986 opened the Hoagy Carmichael Room in his honor. In 1988, the Indiana Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution issued a lavishly illustrated boxed set of recordings, The Classic Hoagy Carmichael, which earned Grammy Award nominations for Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album.” (Hoagy Carmichael Collection/Indiana University website)

Hoagy Carmichael Statue at Indiana University, 2008. Source: http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news-archive/8766.html

Hoagy Carmichael Statue at Indiana University, 2008. Source: http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news-archive/8766.html

Since 2008, this statue of Hoagy has graced the IU campus, outside the Auditorium. Although he wrote only the music, not for “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” they seem appropriate here:

“In the cool, cool, cool of the evening
Tell ’em I’ll be there
In the cool, cool, cool of the evening
Better save a chair
When the party’s gettin’ a glow on
And singin’ fills the air
In the shank of the night
When the doin’s are right
You can tell ’em I’ll be there.”

Resources Consulted:

The Classic Hoagy Carmichael. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society/Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1988.  UASC Regional Collection M3.1 .C37

The Star Dust Melodies of Hoagy Carmichael. Melville, NY: Belwin Mills Publishing Corp., 1983. UASC Regional Collection M1630.18 .C27 1983

Hoagy Carmichael: the Official Website

Hoagy Carmichael Collection/Indiana University website

Posted in Indiana, Indiana history, Indiana Legends, Local history, music | Leave a comment

Hoosier Authors: Paul Dresser

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Head shot of Paul Dresser, n.d. Source: https://www.vchsmuseum.org/dresser-house

Head shot of Paul Dresser, n.d. Source: https://www.vchsmuseum.org/dresser-house

Back on August 8, 2017, my colleague James Wethington wrote about the Hoosier author, Theodore Dreiser. I bet you didn’t know that another Dreiser boy also gained literary fame, this time in the field of music.

Johann Paul Dreiser, Jr. was born April 22, 1858, in Terre Haute, Indiana, 13 years before his more famous brother. His family intended him for the priesthood, and at the age of 12, he was sent to St. Meinrad.

Inspired by the bands and traveling musical groups that he encountered during his youth, Dresser already knew that he wanted to be a musician and rebelled against his parent’s decision. After about a year at the seminary, Dresser ran away with a traveling minstrel group and ended up back in his home town, working odd jobs until his father enrolled him in a new school: St. Bonaventure Lyceum academy in Terre Haute. Here, Dresser received piano lessons and finished his education.” Determined to pursue a career in music, he joined up with other minstrel shows. During this time he changed his last name from Dreiser to Dresser, possibly to appeal to a wider audience by appearing to be less “ethnic.”

Saint Meinrad Archabbey seminary in Spencer County, Indiana, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection, CS 662, 191dc-0021.

Saint Meinrad Archabbey seminary in Spencer County, Indiana, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection, CS 662, 191dc-0021.

He lived for about 5 years in Evansville (1881-1886), in this house near the corner of East Franklin Street and Main Street.

Paul Dresser's home in Evansville, Indiana from c. 1881 to 1886, 1919. Source: Thomas Mueller collection, MSS 264-2961.

Paul Dresser’s home in Evansville, Indiana from c. 1881 to 1886, 1919. Source: Thomas Mueller collection, MSS 264-2961.

In the late 1880’s Dresser moved to New York and hit it big in Tin Pan Alley. “During the 1890s, Dresser was one of the country’s most celebrated and affluent composers of popular songs. He was, however, a big spender, and he eventually fell on hard times, selling his interest in his music-publishing firm, Howley, Havilland & Dresser, in 1904. In poor health and dispirited, he died at age 47 at his sister’s house in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he had been living for several years.

What did he do, in his short life, to be remembered and noted today? In 1899, he wrote a little ditty entitled “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which was adopted as Indiana’s official state song in 1913.

Sheet music to "On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away", n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2J9101i

Sheet music to “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away”, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2J9101i

Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,

From the fields there comes the breath of newmown hay.

Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,

On the banks of the Wabash, far away.”

(This is the chorus, which is the most that is usually sung, even though there are verses.)

The next time you hear the Indiana state song sung, remember it was written by a boy from Terre Haute.

Resources Consulted:

MSS 264, the Thomas Mueller photographic collection

InfoPlease: Paul Dresser Biography

Song of America: Paul Dresser

Songwriters Hall of Fame: Paul Dresser

Posted in Evansville, Indiana, Famous Hoosiers, Hoosier Authors, Indiana history, literature, Local history, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow…”

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

You probably recognize this as a lyric from the musical Annie, which premiered on Broadway in 1977 and won a Tony award for Best Musical. There were Broadway revivals in 19997 and 2012, it was made into a movie in 1982 and again in 2014, and there was even a television version in 1999. Suffice it to say that Annie was a hit. But did you know there was a Hoosier connection?

This is a two-part connection, so bear with me. In the last blog, I wrote about Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. He wrote a poem entitled “Little Orphant Annie” in 1885, based upon a true childhood encounter. “Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was an Indiana neighbor of the Riley family. When her father was killed in the Civil War, twelve-year-old Allie—the name change was a typographical error—came to live with the Rileys; the future poet was a child himself. Allie apparently entertained the other children of an evening with scary stories that made a huge impression on young James.

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,

An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,

An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,

An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;

An’ all us other childern, when the supper things is done,

We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun

A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you

Ef you




Onc’t they was a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–

So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,

His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,

An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wasn’t there at all!

An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,

An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;

But all they ever found was thist his pants an’ roundabout–

An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you




An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,

An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin;

An’ onc’t, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks was there,

She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, an’ said she didn’t care!

An’ thist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,

They was two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side,

An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!

An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you




An’ little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue,

An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!

An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,

An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–

You better mind yer parents, an’ yer teachers fond an’ dear,

An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,

An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,

Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you




This poem just begs to be read aloud. It’s easy to see why a gifted orator/actor such as Riley could make it such a hit on his lecture circuits.

Little Orphan Annie comic strip, n.d. Source: https://blog.retroplanet.com/little-orphan-annie-comic/

Little Orphan Annie comic strip, n.d. Source: https://blog.retroplanet.com/little-orphan-annie-comic/

That’s step one. Harold Gray (1894-1968) was born in Kankakee, Illinois, but his family moved to West Lafayette, Indiana while he was still in school. He graduated from Purdue University, another Hoosier connection, in 1917 and found work with the Chicago Tribune. For 4 years he worked as an assistant to cartoonist Sidney Smith, developing his own love and talent for the art. In 1924, he proposed a new comic strip, to be called Little Orphan Otto. “Believing a character who had no allegiance to family or society would free them up for adventures, he decided to make his protagonist an orphan. Originally a young boy named Otto, Gray decided to switch genders when he realized that of the 43 strips running at the time, only three featured women in prominent roles. Little Orphan Otto became Little Orphan Annie, entering syndication in 1924.

That was step two. Apparently, Riley’s poem was reprinted in the Tribune at that time, hence the inspiration. To be fair, the connection is a bit thin, based mostly on the name, but it is there. “A staunch conservative, Gray often used the powerful platform he had as a widely distributed cartoonist to comment on the politics of the day. Opposed to government interference in private financial affairs, in 1936 he ran a series of strips in which “Daddy” Warbucks is harassed by “political racketeers” and denounces virtually anyone holding public office. Newspaper editors were not pleased, claiming Gray was being too subversive for the funny pages. West Virginia’s Huntington Herald-Dispatch pulled the strip and replaced it with a banner that read: “Deleted! For violation of reader trust!” The syndicate soon circulated word that Gray would be starting a new story, one free of any political subtext. … For a 1956 story in which Annie runs afoul of a vicious street gang, papers including the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Ohio State Journal suspended the strip for depictions of muggings, knives, and other unsavory content. Annie returned to their pages only after her dalliances with juvenile delinquents had come to an end.” Gray’s comic strip was extremely popular, continuing for 44 years until his death. After his death, other cartoonists took over, and sometimes “classic Annie strips” were rerun, until it was finally cancelled in 2010.

NOTE: The original matron at the orphanage was named Miss Asthma, as seen in this comic strip—the name was changed to Miss Hannigan for the musical and then maintained in the movie.

Watch out for those gobble-uns!!

Resources Consulted

“Harold Gray.” Encyclopedia Brittanica online.

“Harold Gray.” Lambiek Comiclopedia online.

Rossen, Jake. “10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Orphan Annie.” Mentalfloss.com, April 30, 2018.

Stein, Sadie. “Gobble-uns.” The Paris Review, October 7, 2014 (online)

Posted in Cartoons, children's literature, Famous Hoosiers, movies | 1 Comment

Hoosier Authors: James Whitcomb Riley

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) was born in Greenfield, Indiana; his father was an attorney and member of the Indiana legislature who named his son after his friend, former Indiana governor and U.S. Senator James Whitcomb. Despite his father’s aspirations for him, the young Riley was a far less than stellar student and lacked any sense of ambition for a professional career like his father’s. Indeed, one of his teachers, despairing of Riley’s inability to grasp mathematics, focused instead on literature, reading, and acting.

Leaving school at age 16, Riley tried his hand at a number of jobs: sign painting, clerking in a shoe store, and working in a traveling medicine show. Surprising, both the sign painting and medicine show jobs proved beneficial for Riley’s future success. He encountered rural life (important for his poetry) and in his medicine show performances. developed those recitation and acting skills his teacher had nurtured in him.

Riley’s experiences soon convinced him that poetry—writing, publishing, and reciting—was his métier. He took a job as a reporter for the Anderson Democrat, and began to submit his poems for publication in local newspapers. Their reception was not always as he hoped. “In a rather spiteful response to this cool reception, he decided in the summer of 1877 to prove his point that any poem would become successful and popular if the author were assumed to be “a genius known to fame” by perpetrating a literary hoax: he wrote a poem which he entitled “Leonainie,” signed it with the initials “E.A.P.,” concocted the story that this was a long-lost poem by Poe newly discovered on the fly-leaf of a dictionary owned by a local gentleman, and arranged for it to printed in the Kokomo Dispatch.” (Critical Survey…., p. 2765)

What Riley considered to be merely a local joke soon grew to what, in today’s parlance, we’d call viral. Within a month the fraud was exposed and Riley confessed and was fired by his editor. In an ironic twist, there were those who firmly believed the poem was indeed authored by Poe, and regarded Riley’s confession as the true fraud! Although the scandal haunted Riley the rest of his life, he landed on his feet and was immediately hired by the Indianapolis Journal.

Entrance of the Savoy Hotel, n.d. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/16310406416

Entrance of the Savoy Hotel, n.d. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/16310406416

Indianapolis became Riley’s home during the 11 years he spent with the Journal, and indeed, for the rest of his life. He formed a lucrative deal with Bobbs-Merrill publishing company, which by 1949 had sold more than 3 million copies of his works. In 1881, he signed with Redpath Lyceum Bureau Circuit, and became a wealthy and immensely successful performer. “Riley….was a charismatic speaker: having developed a striking stage presence, Riley could slip in and out of Hoosier dialect at will, and had so perfectly rehearsed his comic commentaries on his own poems that they seemed to be the spontaneous remarks of an unusually witty, genial man of the soil. The Riley-the-poet whom thousands flocked to see and hear was in fact a character or persona created by Riley-the-actor, with every gesture, aside, and intonation meticulously prepared in advance.” (Critical Survey…., p. 2766) He became well known enough to share the stage with literati such as Mark Twain, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells. In 1891, he conducted a “triumphant” tour of Britain and was toasted at London’s famous Savoy Hotel.

Riley was extremely popular during his lifetime, and upon his death in 1916, “some thirty-five thousand people passed his bier under the dome of the Indiana state capitol.” (Dictionary, p. 434) His popularity, built largely upon his oratorial skills, soon declined. His poetry is seen as sentimental and romantically harkening back to a simpler time that never really existed. His use of “rural Hoosier” dialect may ring offensive in modern ears.

The Raggedy Man’s so good an’ kind

He’ll be our “horsey,” an’ “haw” an’ mind

Ever’thing ‘at you make him do—

An’ won’t run off—’less you want him to!

I drived him wunst way down our lane

An’ he got skeered, when it ‘menced to rain,

An’ ist rared up an’ squealed and run

Purt’ nigh away!—an’ it’s all in fun!

Nen he skeered ag’in at a’ old tin can …

Whoa! y’ old runaway Raggedy Man!

Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man!

This is the 4th stanza from “The Raggedy Man,” published in 1890. Riley said that the Raggedy Man was not a tramp, just a poor hired hand who played with the children. The story is told from a child’s perspective and that colors the narrative, yet it’s still difficult to hear.

3. Riley Hospital License Plate

Riley Hospital for Children License Plate, n.d. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Specplate_rcf-large.jpg

Today, James Whitcomb Riley is probably better known for things named for him, such as the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. The hospital is renowned for its groundbreaking research and treatment for Indiana children, regardless of the ability to pay.

There are a couple of schools named for Riley in Indiana—a high school in South Bend and an elementary school in Indianapolis. There once were more, including this no longer existing school in Mt. Vernon. Located at 1000 West 4th Street, this building now serves as the Metropolitan School District of Mt. Vernon’s office.

James Whitcomb Riley Grade School in Mt. Vernon, IN, 1950. Source: John Doane collection, MSS 022-0041.

James Whitcomb Riley Grade School in Mt. Vernon, IN, 1950. Source: John Doane collection, MSS 022-0041.

Some 29 volumes of early edition, some first editions, Riley works were donated a few years ago–stop by University Archives Special Collections and look.

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In the next blog, we’ll explore Riley’s connection to today’s musical theatre.

Resources Consulted:

Critical Survey of Poetry. English Language Series. Frank N. Magill, ed. Rev. ed. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1992.   REF PR502 .C85 1992

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Philip A. Greasley, general editor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. REF PS273 .D53 2001

MSS 022, the John Doane collection—photographs held by University Archives Special Collections, available online

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