Who is Orphan Annie's Author?
Brigette Cook Jones
Brigette Cook Jones is a lifelong lover of history. And one of her earliest memories was of her Papaw reading to her the James Whitcomb Riley poem, "Little Orphant Annie." The poem had such an impact on the young historian that she memorized the poem by the age of seven, and would present a recitation in her church on the anniversary of Riley's birth. Each year on October 7th, the city of Greenfield, Indiana, hosts the Riley Festival - one of the largest and oldest fall festivals in the state. Jones says one of her fondest memories is participating in the Riley Flower parade where the children of Greenfield bring flowers to Riley's statue as part of the celebration.
Brigette would parlay that love of history into a career. She would graduate from Ball State University with a degree in Social Studies Education. However, quickly finding out that many high school history jobs go to men and coaches - she moved into the museum world where she would be hired into the Education and Performing Arts department of the Indiana State Museum.
She would work at the Indiana State Museum for eight years, and while there she would organize and facilitate the museum's participation in the 150th Celebration of James Whitcomb Riley's birth in 1999. Also, while at the museum, she authored a lesson plan series on Riley, created a series of events and activities at the museum throughout the year of the celebration, assisted with assembling a display of Riley artifacts, coordinated a statewide poetry contest and hosted a birthday party at the museum on the day of Riley's birth.
Unfortunately, the economic downturn in 2005 caused ISM to cut six positions - including Jones'. Brigette would turn to part time museum work in her hometown, as well as substitute teaching while caring for her two young children. Brigette and her husband and their daughters live on her family farm outside of Greenfield.
Eventually, Jones would be hired as the President of the Hancock County Historical Society, a mostly volunteer organization, where she worked a lot of hours for a small monthly stipend. It was a big title and a lot of work for not much money, but allowed Jones to branch out into many different roles. This included event planning, advertising, membership, social media and website development, building maintenance and other administrative work. The HCHS runs the Chapel in the Park Museum and the Old Log Jail Museum in Greenfield, IN on a very limited seasonal basis.
At about the same time, Brigette also started working at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home in Greenfield as a Hostess (docent) - basically it was a tour guide position. However, she wanted to do more. She found out that the Riley artifacts were supposed to be under the care of the Riley Old Home Society - a separate not-for-profit entity that worked with the City-owned Riley Home. The ROHS had not met in six years and was basically defunct. Jones and two hostesses would reconstitued the ROHS board, and she would become its Secretary.
While at the Riley Home, she implemented museum standards for collection conservation and care. She created new events - and programming - including a new statue of the Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley that was erected in 2016 - just in time for Indiana's Bicentennial. As a result of her efforts, Jones would be named the first Coordinator of the Riley Boyhood Home - a position that never existed before (but still only part time).
In between the Riley Home and the Historical Society work, Jones continued writing - including a short stint as a columnist for the local paper. She also started giving presentations and talks around the state of Indiana about historic people and other history related topics. You might also have seen her in costume at the Riley Home - either portraying Riley's mother or Riley's fiance for special events. As a result of these efforts, Jones was awarded the Indiana Historical Society's Hubert Hawkins Award for Outstanding Local Historian in 2012. She was also honored as a Hancock County Torch Bearer for the Indiana State Bicentennial in 2016.
In 2017, Brigette started her new full-time position as the Executive Director for Hancock County Tourism - a position that she holds today.
The impetus for researching Mary Alice Smith, who is the person that inspired Riley to write the "Little Orphant Annie" poem, came about in 2005 when the Riley Festival theme for that year was "Little Orphant Annie." This prompted Jones to start researching the real person behind the Riley poem, and all of the permutations of the character that have come since. "I do this in my 'spare' time - which as a busy Mom with several part time jobs - is not so spare - so this has been a long adventure." Jones hopes to write a book about her research in the near future.