In working on this history I found an article that was published in The Daily Reporter on October 7, 1985 that was full of history about the start of the Festival. I also found a history 1911 to 1957, by Dale Beagle and Dorothy June Williams that was written for the Connection for the Oct/Nov 1988 edition. What follows is a brief summary of these articles.
1911 – Mrs. John Fowler Mitchell introduced before State Convention of Literary Clubs at Richmond, IN., a resolution asking that the school children and literary clubs observe annually Riley’s birthday. Samuel Ralston, Gov. of IN. issued a proclamation that all Indiana observe “Riley Days”. Other cities including New York City and Pittsburg were also asked to observe “Riley Days.”
1912 - October 7, 1912, the 63rd birthday of Mr. Riley was set aside for a special observance for the poet. People came from all over the country to see Mr. Riley. The downtown area was decorated for the occasion. 1,000 school children lined the street as a car carrying Mr. Riley along with Mayor Ora Myers and former Mayor George A Carr, came down the street. The children covered the car and Mr. Riley with their flowers (Red clover was his favorite) as they called out his name. As the car passed, the children fell in line behind the car and followed it to the public square (where his statue is located today). Mr. Riley was presented a loving cup by George Walton (the cup is in the Riley Home). The area around the courthouse was packed with people waiting to see and hear Mr. Riley. As he sat in the car he said, “Not being able to rise, I shall only say that I cannot tell you my heart is touched … a great thing and later on we can claim the reward we all hope for. Heaven will indeed have to surpass itself to find more than I have here.”
1915 - Riley’s last birthday. Picture of this is in the Riley Home. He watched the parade of children from his home.
1916 - Riley died July 22, 1916. President Wilson gave a tribute. It was estimated that 35,000 children paid their respect to Mr. Riley at his funeral.
1918 – November – Riley statue unveiled. After the death of James Whitcomb Riley friends of Mr. Riley started a fund asking the children of the United States to donate their pennies to build a statue of the beloved poet. A committee chaired by Mrs. J. H. Brooks chose the sculptor, Myra Reynolds Richards, and on Tuesday, November 26, 1918 the completed statue was erected in front of the Hancock County Courthouse. In the base of the statue is a ledger with the names of all the school children who donated and worked for its erection. The Flower Parade was started under former Mayor Ora Myers, a few years after the statue was erected.
1921 – “Riley Days” were March 7 & 8. The premier of the film “The Old Swimming Hole” staring Charles Ray was shown during Riley Days. Schools were given a free showing.
From 1913 to 1924 the only remembrance of Mr. Riley’s birthday was done in the class room. Then in 1925 to celebrate the building of a park bearing the name of Mr. Riley it was decided to have a public celebration.