James Whitcomb Riley was a no-show in La Porte, but his name is on a school and a street here

James Whitcomb Riley (Photo provided)

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

A traveling exhibit from the Indiana Historical Society entitled “Golden Age of Indiana Literature” is being featured at the La Porte County Historical Society Museum. One of the highlighted authors is James Whitcomb Riley. His 150th birthday was celebrated Oct. 7, 1999. A consortium of Indiana organizations was formed to honor that event and La Porte County was asked, through its County Historian, to submit information about buildings, etc., located in the various Indiana counties they represent that carry his name.

In Michigan City, a street approximately one block long is named Riley Court and is located directly across from the newly constructed Michigan City Police Station, north from Michigan Boulevard. A Riley School was located on South Carroll Avenue for many years in Michigan City but is no longer in existence. La Porte, too, has a Riley Court, which runs south of Weller Avenue and east to Greenleaf Street. Riley School in La Porte is located on Weller Avenue.

The sign of the no-show (or no-book?): Hall’s Opera House, which was located at Main and Madison in LaPorte. (Photo provided)

In April 1920, the La Porte City Board of Education announced it would award a contract to Samuel Purcell of Rochester, Indiana, as general contractor to build a new school in La Porte. George Wood Allen, local architect, was chosen to prepare the plans. The north side citizens of La Porte sought the privilege of naming the school building. The North Side Civic & Social Association came into being and one of the activities of this organization was to select a name. Suggested names were to be submitted to the Board of Education and the winning name would be announced. The name Riley was chosen based on the fact that James Whitcomb Riley had a profound interest in children and was known as “the children’s poet.” The first day of school in the new building was September 5, 1921.

In the early 1970s, the old school was leveled and a new school was built. The dedication of the new school was in 1972.

Another La Porte County connection to Riley was his scheduled appearance in La Porte at Hall’s Opera House, which was announced Wednesday, May 2, 1894, by W.C. Miller, Manager of the opera house. He indicated the appearance was “at great expense in securing.” He guaranteed Riley

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

$200 and expenses and there was hope the house would be packed. It was noted that the house “ought to be crowded and thus enable La Porte to maintain its splendid reputation as a literary as well as musical center.” The two front rows in dress circle, $1 each seat, the balance of downstairs, 75 cents. Four front rows in balcony, 75 cents and the balance of the gallery seats were 50 cents each.

The audience at the opera house was an “extremely fashionable one, the best people in the city being present.” For almost an hour the orchestra furnished music which entertained, yet no Riley or Douglas Sherley appeared. The audience grew restless and at about 9 o’clock Rev. E.B. Widger stepped onto the stage and made the announcement that neither of the artists had made his appearance and as all trains had come in that they could arrive on, the management felt the only thing to do would be to refund the money for seats purchased.

By May 4, Manager Miller indicated he had not yet heard from either Riley or Sherley. He, however, stated he had placed his case in the hands of an attorney and the “two above named gentlemen will be made to stand his loss and damage.” The attorney noted Mr. Miller had a strong case against the two, who were to have given the entertainment, and Miller would surely collect damages. No information was located about the outcome of the case.

2 Responses to “James Whitcomb Riley was a no-show in La Porte, but his name is on a school and a street here”

  1. Keith E. Hyatte

    Sep 10. 2019

    Thank you to Fern Eddy Schultz for these wonderful and informative historical pieces which appear in What’s New La Porte. I especially love hearing about Hall’s Opera House. I wonder who the “fashionable and best people in attendance” were. Gotta love stories about La Porte’s past.

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  2. Fern Eddy Schultz

    Sep 11. 2019

    All

    I have been told my information about the naming of the Riley Court in Michigan City was not for James Whitcomb Riley but for individuals who owned that particular property. This would need further research.

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