Delphi Opera House: Where James Whitcomb Riley Read

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Delphi Opera House: Where James Whitcomb Riley Read

Delphi Opera House in Delphi. Indiana

Delphi Opera House in Delphi. Indiana

The Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana was once the hub of social entertainment.

More than just great architecture, historical landmark is a very unique link to the past. In fact, someone you could consider one of Indiana’s beloved poets once read his work aloud here.

Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana

Delphi Opera House in Delphi. Indiana

Delphi Opera House in Delphi. Indiana

Built back in 1865, the Opera House is actually located on the third floor. Climb two very steep flights of stairs that were obviously made with hoop skirts in mind. The space was used more as an event hall than anything else.

It wasn’t until the floor was built up with risers twenty years later that the Delphi Opera House became the place to be. So much so, in fact, that performers came from all over–even James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916).

The famed poet was struck with inspiration after visiting a pond in Delphi that he had to write a poem about it. You may already be familiar with The Old Swimmin’ Hole.

Do you know the poem? 

OH! the old swimmin’-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc’t ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin’ out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it’s hard to part ferever with the old swimmin’-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin’ up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time’s tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin’-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the humdrum of school made so many run-a-ways,
How plesant was the jurney down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o’ fun on hands at the old swimmin’-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin’-hole.

Thare the bullrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Tel the glad lilies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder’s four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze’s controle
As it cut acrost some orchard to’rds the old swimmin’-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin’-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be–
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’-hole.

“The Old Swimmin’-Hole” is reprinted from Complete Works. James Whitcomb Riley. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.

As you can see from the photo, visiting performers left their mark on the place. Literally. Actors and actresses signed their names along the back wall behind the stage, sometimes drawing pictures. Self portraits, perhaps? Occasionally they scribbled in the date (which I love). Unfortunately, no one has found James Whitcomb Riley’s name yet. Will you?

Delphi Opera House History

Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana: Tall Windows

Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana: Tall Windows

Once upon a time, the connecting building was a hotel that the various performers used to get ready before hopping over to go onstage. The old door has long since been bricked over and the building next door is now an upper level apartment.

The Opera House managed to stay in business, competing against, I believe, two others in Delphi, until 1915 when the place was shut down. A third floor Opera House with only one way out does not make for a safe place in case of fire.

The Opera House fell into a state of decay and was mainly used as storage. Where once the backstage area led into the building next door, has since been closed off. The second floor balcony appears less than safe. Wallpaper and even the walls are peeling and cracking. But! Even in its current shabby state, you can just SEE how beautiful the space could be with a little work.

As you can probably tell from my Images from Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana article, this place is really in need of renovation. Fortunately, the Delphi Preservation Society has come to the rescue, receiving grants and donations to recreate or save many of its amazing features, and bring it back to its former glory.

Yes, they are hoping to save as much of the original as possible. I like the way those people think.

Where James Whitcomb Riley Read

Things to Do in Delphi, Indiana
There are so many reasons to head to this small Indiana town–the Opera House is a must see attraction. Add in the museum dedicated to canal history (with plenty of hands-on play), excellent restaurants, parks, and playgrounds, and you have one great Indiana travel destination.

You can be sure that Little Indiana is going to keep tabs on this one. I’ll keep you informed of its progress.

Stay up to date on the latest news with the Delphi Opera House on Facebook and TwitterPlease take note that the Twitter account link does leave off the “e” on “house.”

Small Towns: Destinations, not Drive-Thrus! I’m Jessica Nunemaker and THIS is Little Indiana.

Just don’t forget to tell them that Little Indiana sent you.

Delphi Opera House
109 S Washington Street
Delphi, IN 46923

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About the Author:

Jessica Nunemaker is the Owner of Little More than a website, Little Indiana is a book, "Little Indiana: Small Town Destinations" (IU Press) awarded first place in the "Best in Indiana Journalism for a Nonfiction Book" by the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Little Indiana is also a bi-monthly newspaper column in a local paper and a PBS segment on the former Emmy award-winning program, "The Weekly Special."


  1. Jessica Nunemaker August 15, 2011 at 7:40 am

    Thanks Kathy! 🙂 What a neat place to grow up!

  2. Kathy Hyman August 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    I love this site – I grew up in the opera house building as it was my dads drugstore so I love following what they are doing. I am a life enrichment coordinator for an independent living facility in Lafayette and this site will be great to help find fun places – just need to work my way around the site – hank you for that!!!

  3. Jessica Nunemaker July 7, 2010 at 5:58 am

    @Doug I’m not sure I agree that the small town is past its heyday — I’ve visited plenty that have grown in leaps and bounds!

    @Paul There is nothing better than cider! I’ll have to check it out in the Fall. Thanks for the heads up! I hope, hope, hope she’s still making it!!!

  4. Doug July 5, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks for the posting about Delphi. Delphi is my home town (I grew up there from 9 mo. to college) but I haven’t been back since the family all died out. I remember the Opera House as a kid as being this creepy, haunted place full of stuff covered with sheets. We used to get the key from a woman on the second floor (who shall forever remain anonymous since everyone worried about toxoplasmosis) and wander around.

    Your website is marvelous. Small town Indiana is way past its heyday — which was probably 1855-1885 or so — but there is so much evidence of history from that period has survived that hasn’t in the cities and suburbs. New England values the 1600s, Virginia the 1700s… but the Gilded Age is lost most places, but not all.

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