Frost on the Pumpkins, the Hoosier Poet, and Lake Maxinkuckee
Writer / Jeff Kenney
If you’ve ever contemplated the sights, sounds, and smells of autumn in Northern Indiana and found yourself musing something along the lines of, “The frost is on the punkin’,” you might be recalling immortal lines written by Hoosier Poet and National Poet Laureate, James Whitcomb Riley. What you may not know is that Riley visited Lake Maxinkuckee and wrote a poetic tribute to its beauties during the height of literary popularity.
Riley (1849 – 1916) was one of America’s most beloved poets and speakers, and during his lifetime was surely Indiana’s best-known and most popular writer.
Riley’s poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” first published in 1911, is still familiar to generations of Hoosiers who heard or read it each autumn in school (Indianapolis schoolchildren still make annual fall pilgrimages to his grave in Crown Hill Cemetery and hear the poem read aloud).
His nearly equally well-known “Little Orphant Annie” poem was the inspiration (at least in name) for the “Orphan Annie” character later made famous through comic strips, theater, and movies (though in a much more developed form than Riley’s brief, spooky references to her in a poem whose catchphrase, “An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you Ef you Don’t Watch Out!” chilled many a young reader).
Riley was one of a passel of highly-regarded Indiana authors during the “golden age” of Hoosier literature from the 1890s through the 1920s, alongside the likes of George Ade, Meredith Nicholson, and Booth Tarkington, all of whom frequented Lake Maxinkuckee during that era.
In fact, in the collection of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver resides a July 1890 letter provided by Maxinkuckee cottager Ted Schenberg and written by Riley, encouraging its recipient to contact him “Care (of) Booth Tarkington — Maxinkuckee, Indiana.”
Pulitzer-prize winning Tarkington frequented an East Shore Drive cottage which is today owned by David and Ginny Gibson but was long home, in its early cottage years, to the Judah family summer cottage. There, Tarkington wrote part of “The Gentleman From Indiana,” had a summer romance, and even signed the wall of the original house, a wall the Gibsons have retained in their 2010-built home on the site.
Meredith Nicholson spent a winter in a cottage owned by the Vonnegut family on the northern end of East Shore Drive at Maxinkuckee and was there inspired to pen his 1905 novel, “The House of a Thousand Candles,” which became the best-selling novel in America in 1906 and spawned three film adaptations. For his part, George Ade also made visits to the lake, including annual Literary Society events held on the campus of Culver Military Academy.
The literary footprints along Maxinkuckee shores weren’t new to the “golden age” writers of the state capital. Just over a decade earlier, Gen. Lew Wallace, an avid fisherman who hailed from Crawfordsville, Indiana, relaxed in a fishing hotel on today’s 18B Road in the Maxinkuckee Village, just off the lake’s east shore. The still-standing building, which dates back to 1852, was known as The Allegheny Hotel and was described in The Chicago American newspaper as, “an old tavern, sitting back from the roadside and looking as if it had stepped out of an English novel.”
The paper noted that Wallace wrote the chariot race scenes of his novel, “Ben Hur” (the best-selling novel in America of the entire 19th century) in the hotel and pronounced Lake Maxinkuckee, “the most beautiful place in the world.”
Hoosier Poet Riley even penned a poetic tribute to Lake Maxinkuckee titled, “Life at the Lake” in 1890. Describing it (in the 1890 letter referenced above) to a friend as “a jovial, devil-may-care sort o’ midsummer stave,” Riley’s poem opens with the lines:
“The green below and the blue above
The waves caressing the shores they love;
Sails in haven and sails afar
And faint as the water lilies are…
The blue above and the green below
would that the world was always so…”
Perhaps the poem’s closing lines are fitting for the autumn season on Maxinkuckee, when busy summer days on boat and beach give way the more tranquil ethos of fall colors and crisp days:
“The blue above and the green below!
Shadow and sunshine to and fro. —
Season for dreams — whate’er befall
Hero, heroine, hearts and all!
Wave or wildwood — the blithe bird sings,
And the leaf-hid locust whets his wings —
Just as a thousand years ago —
The blue above and the green below.”