"the life of Riley" is a near-extinct expression dating from the
early 20th century meaning the person referred to enjoys a life
of ease with everything pretty much always going his way.
A real man named Riley, one James Valentine Riley, may or may not
have been familiar with the expression relying on the surname he
happened to have been born with, but he had plenty to be thankful
for in life. His success, however, did not come with gift wrapping.
He achieved what he did through hard work and a keen eye for trading
up. He earned his "life of Riley."
Though he ended up in West Texas, Riley's story began in Maries
County, Missouri, where he was born Jan. 2, 1855. Family lore has
it that when he was a young boy still living in the Show Me State,
his family's house burned. Generations later, one of his descendants
posted on an online genealogy site that Riley had remembered someone,
possibly his aunt, grabbing and pulling him out of the blazing house.
Though not directly asserted, the inference is that whoever got
him out of that house likely saved his life. It has not been determined
if any of his family members died in the fire, but the descendant
said Riley never talked about his family.
Whatever happened, by the late 1860s or early 1870s he was living
in Hunt County in
East Texas. There, on Jan. 19, 1873, he was married to Sarah Elizabeth
Back then, a bride-to-be did not register for wedding gifts with
some high-end retailer, or even Walmart. (Of course, big box stores
did not exist in those days.) While it's always been the custom
that newlyweds are given practical things to help them set up a
household, wedding gifts weren't particularly fancy in Reconstruction-era
Texas. And in 1873, the nation was sliding toward one of its worst-ever
When Riley walked down the aisle to exchange vows with his soon-to-be-wife,
his net worth amounted to $14 and his monthly income was $15. Chances
are, his bride had even less.
One of their presents, a gift that might have been intended as a
joke, was a blind horse. Clearly a man very good at putting the
proper spin on things, Riley traded that sightless steed for a steer.
Soon, he swapped the steer for a three-year-old horse.
In a deal that would do a modern-day used car dealer proud, Riley
traded the horse, along with a 40-day work commitment, for a big
work mare. Satisfying his obligation to work off a portion of the
horse's cost, he traded the work horse and more of his "free" labor
for a team of horses.
"After these commercial deals," Mrs. Clyde Miller, one of Riley's
daughters, wrote for the 1957 book, "A Saga of Scurry," "there was
no holding Riley back. He kept on working and trading and got hold
of a 40-acre farm near Kingston."
(Founded as a railroad town in 1880, Kingston
is 10 miles north of Greenville
in Hunt County.)
Somehow, Riley parlayed that land into 110 acres near Celeste,
a community three miles north of Kingston.
From there, in 1886, he moved to Central Texas and an even larger
farm in Coryell County.
Four years after that, he relocated to Mills
County. Again, he had acquired even more land than he had before.
"[T]he Rileys knew how to make each dollar count," his daughter
wrote, "to do its full duty and bring results."
Finally, around 1891 he moved to Scurry
County and purchased a large ranch north of Synder.
traded up for better and better deals, Riley stayed put this time.
He died at 75 on Jan. 17, 1930 and is buried in Snyder Cemetery.
Two years younger than her husband, Sarah Riley lived until Nov.
"At his death," Mrs. Miller wrote of her father, "he left each of
his eight children a section [640 acres] of land. His memory will
ever be cherished by his children and his friends."
And it all started with a horse that couldn't see.
As Riley's daughter noted with justified pride, "A blind horse can
be made the lever of success, if the man handling the lever exerts
"Texas Tales" March
2, 2017 column