Ryther is a nonprofit organization located in the Wedgwood neighborhood of Seattle, offering behavioral health services for children and families. At Ryther children receive guidance, coaching, counseling and teaching to experience new ways of thinking and overcoming challenges. Ryther’s legacy began in Seattle’s struggling days of the 1880s when Ollie Ryther vowed never to turn away a needy child.
Beginnings: The early days of Seattle
In 1880 Seattle was a small town, population about 3,500, with the bustling Yesler’s Wharf at the center of the waterfront industries at what is now First Avenue. Many types of vessels, big and small, went out from the Seattle waterfront to carry merchandise to and from communities around Puget Sound, and all the way to San Francisco. Along Commercial Street (now First Avenue) were shipbuilders, machine shops and manufacturing plants. In an era before electric power, coal was the primary fuel and the market for coal mined at Renton and Newcastle kept expanding. Exports of timber, coal and other goods made Seattle’s waterfront one of the busiest on the West Coast of the USA.
With Seattle’s reputation growing in the 1880s, the town constantly attracted business investors who did have money, and fortune-seekers who didn’t. Some men came to Seattle thinking that they would get rich quick, but the reality was that there was only hard work available in the mines, forests and manufacturing establishments. It was observed that very often, men who had not been successful in their home places, also lacked the strength, skill and work ethic to make a success of themselves on the frontier in Seattle. As a result, some men became derelict, spending their money in one of the plentiful saloons, and some abandoned the wives and children that they had brought out West.
The Rythers reach out to Seattle
Noble and Ollie Ryther of Iowa were attracted out West by a different motive: to help those in frontier Seattle who had fallen by the wayside. In 1874 Noble left Ollie and their three daughters in Iowa while he came ahead to Seattle and worked in a downtown Seattle rescue mission. The City Mission near the waterfront provided a place for homeless men and attempted to get them back on the path to a productive life. Noble had to support himself in Seattle, so he worked as a carpenter. It took seven years until finally in 1881 Noble had enough money from his carpentry earnings to send for his family.
In Seattle in 1884 a son, Allen, was born to Ollie and Noble, joining his three older sisters who had been born in Iowa. Despite all her home responsibilities, Ollie soon became involved in helping to nurse a sick neighbor, Mrs. Long. It was known that Mr. Long was around somewhere but he had fallen into excessive drinking and had not been providing economic support to his family. When it became clear that Mrs. Long was going to die, Ollie Ryther promised to take the Long’s four children into her own home.
With the four Long children added to their family the Rythers decided to move into a bigger house, and close-in so that the children could attend school in Seattle. They obtained a house at 813 Alder Street, near Yesler Way which was a through street and later had a streetcar line. Located on the hill above downtown Seattle near what is now Yesler Terrace, the area was still rural enough that the Rythers could keep a cow to provide milk for the children.
At that time, 1884, there was no orphanage in Seattle and no place for mothers and children who were left desperate when abandoned. Ollie Ryther had found her life’s mission: she vowed never to turn a child away. For the next fifty years she took in unwanted babies left on her doorstep, and found adoptive homes for them. Ollie helped mothers who needed a place to live and needed work. Ollie developed a network of supporters and business contacts and could send women to find jobs, while offering to provide daycare for their children.
Single fathers would leave their children with Mother Ryther while working and contributing to their support at the rate of $1 per week. Decades later, in 1919 Mother Ryther would access her connection to the bricklayers and stone masons’ trade unions to help her build the Ryther Home at North 44th Street & Stone Way. Newspaper reports noted that some of these working men had had to leave their children with Mother Ryther, so they had a direct interest in building a new and better home, the building which was constructed in 1919 on Stone Way in the Wallingford neighborhood.
The Rythers move from Alder Street to Denny Way
By 1904 the Ryther family, still living in the Alder Street house, needed even bigger quarters. A supporter, Laurence Colman, found a house for them, the old Pontius mansion, at 1262 Denny Way near Minor Ave and Pontius Ave in today’s South Lake Union. Colman, son of James Colman for whom Seattle’s ferry dock is named, organized a board to support Mother Ryther’s work, which was then called the City Mission Foundling Home. The Board produced a pamphlet with endorsements by 22 Seattle leaders and businessmen, including Robert Moran (shipbuilder and former mayor) and Rev. Mark Matthews of First Presbyterian Church.
A new and even bigger home: the move to Wallingford
After Ollie Ryther’s husband, Noble, died in 1914 she became even more dedicated to her work with the children. Her friends and supporters campaigned to build an official home for the work of Mother Ryther, issuing constant publicity and appeals for funds throughout the years 1915 to 1919. The fundraising campaign was to “buy a brick” for the new Home.
A publicity parade was held on June 18, 1919. Using the cars of volunteers, the entire Ryther household of 58 children were given rides on Second Avenue in downtown Seattle to alert the public and solicit contributions for the new building. Donations to the building fund were collected at the intersection of Second & Cherry Street. The children then proceeded to the site of the new building at North 44th Street & Stone Way for a groundbreaking ceremony.
On May 7, 1920, the City Mission Foundling Home moved to 4416 Stone Way in the Wallingford neighborhood and was renamed the Ryther Home. (The building was later used by the United Cerebral Palsy Association, then torn down in 1996 and replaced by University House, a retirement community.)
The entire household of 75 people, which included children and Ryther staff, were transported to the new building by a fleet of private automobiles, arranged by the charitable supporters of the Home.
The Ryther Home in Wallingford
Mother Ryther was 70 when, accompanied by staff and children, she moved to the new building on Stone Way in 1920, but she was still going strong. Far from being just an administrator, Mother Ryther gave hands-on individual attention to the children each day, maintaining the atmosphere of love and care of a big family. Each evening the entire household would gather for a time of singing, prayer, a Bible story and positive reinforcement of good behavior, such as awards for doing well in school.
After Mother Ryther died at age 85 in 1934, the Home closed for a year while the Board of Trustees considered what to do. They knew that there was no one person who could exactly replace Mother Ryther and replicate her fifty years of dedication to the care of children.
The 1930s were difficult times economically, and the Board of the Foundling Home wanted to determine how to continue to serve needy children. By the 1930s there were other agencies which served children and mothers, so what niche could be fulfilled by the legacy of Mother Ryther? The University of Washington School of Social Work reported that, while there were other placement agencies for orphans, no one in Seattle was providing a service center for treatment of children with emotional instability or behavior problems. In 1935 the renamed Ryther Child Center opened for the treatment of emotionally disturbed children, under the visionary new direction of Miss Lillian Johnson.
A new director at Ryther and a new direction: Lillian Johnson
At the time of her hiring at Ryther in August 1935, Lillian Johnson had been Director of the Nebraska State Bureau of Child Welfare. She had a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Chicago. Because of Miss Johnson’s careful work to support the treatment of children, the Ryther Child Center became a leader in use of counseling to help children and youth.
The Ryther Child Center officially re-opened in October 1935 (still in the Stone Way building) with eleven children in residence. The staff included a nurse, a property caretaker, a cook and University of Washington graduate students as supervisors of casework. The objective of the Ryther program was to provide in-residence care in a homelike atmosphere, while providing treatment and behavioral guidance. Evidence-based, proven therapeutic techniques were developed under Miss Johnson’s leadership.
As of 1935 the Ryther Child Center was supported by the Community Fund (forerunner of United Way) but Miss Johnson saw the need to involve the community more widely in supporting Ryther’s work. Miss Johnson would summarize case histories at Board meetings and in speaking engagements at service clubs such as Kiwanis and Lions. She spoke vividly of the Ryther children and told how lives were being saved with understanding, therapeutic treatment and loving care.
A public-relations person was appointed to send out Ryther event and information releases to newspapers. In 1937 “guilds” were organized which were groups of women who wanted to support Ryther by raising funds. The first group grew to include 24 members, causing it to be called the Four and Twenty Club, a designation still used today.
Changes that Miss Johnson brought to Ryther included a record-keeping system which documented the progress of each child, and the practice of including care staff in therapy sessions so that they could reinforce and support the treatment strategies of the therapists.
In her speaking engagements and public news releases, Miss Johnson helped to change the thinking of the public regarding “bad children.” There was a tendency for society to think of misbehaving children as disobedient, but Miss Johnson showed that emotionally disturbed children may have been impacted by abuse and neglect, drugs, or lack of teaching.
A groundbreaking event was a Life Magazine article in 1947, followed by a series of articles in the Seattle Times newspaper about Ryther “success stories.” The real-life stories of child abuse, deprivation and trauma shocked people but resulted in greater public awareness that children could be helped by specific therapy along with love and affirmation at Ryther.
From Wallingford to Wedgwood
By 1950 the Wallingford building was considered to be outmoded and inadequate for Ryther’s needs, as it had an institutional feel with dormitories. The Four and Twenty Clubs began a search for new property, with the guideline that it should be in north Seattle for easy access to the University of Washington.
Ryther’s present property at 2400 NE 95th Street was purchased by the Four and Twenty Clubs in 1953 and officially presented to the Board in March 1954. The property had once been owned by Winlock Miller, descendant of a pioneer Washington family which managed lands for logging and development.
After finalizing architectural plans and conducting a building campaign, the new Ryther in Wedgwood was completed and opened in June 1957. Just as had been done in 1920 at the move to Wallingford, in 1957 a delighted caravan of Ryther children transported their belongings to the new site in Wedgwood.
UPDATE: At the end of the year 2019, Ryther had to stop accepting foster children for residential treatment because the level of reimbursement from the State of Washington was so low. Ryther could not afford to have the children live on campus and receive professional psychological services. As of the year 2020 Ryther offers outpatient treatment only.
Ryther programs began again after another setback, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In Washington State schools and many other services closed in mid-March 2020. As of July 2020 coronavirus screening protocols were set in place for clients to come in to Ryther for sessions with a therapist.
Rather than a dormitory-style building, the Ryther campus now has four cottages and a main administration building with meeting rooms. The cottages can accommodate twelve children who each have their own bedroom. On the main floor of each cottage there is a livingroom, a meeting area and a kitchen with adjacent round tables for meals. The cottages have no live-in houseparents who sleep at the facility. The Ryther campus is staffed around the clock by psychologists and counselors who are watching out for the children through day and night, because nighttime can be difficult for traumatized children. As of 1962 Ryther has its own school building on-site, staffed by special education teachers of Seattle Public Schools. It was found that children who have struggled with severe life issues, have moved a lot or have been in a series of foster homes, are usually behind grade level in school. The average length of stay at Ryther is nine months, and during that time while attending the Ryther School, children are given intensive individual attention so that they may catch up on their studies.
The legacy of Mother Ryther continues today, even without the residential program. Children, youth and families who come to Ryther are given individual therapy to deal with issues resulting from abuse, neglect, mental illness or addiction. Children and youth are taught specific ways to identify and deal with their emotions, and make positive choices. Ryther staff guide, coach and teach so that every child and family they work with may experience new ways of thinking, may develop positive relationships, and realize a better life.
Ways to help support the work of Ryther:
–Give quality clothing and small household items to be sold at ReStyle for Ryther, a fundraising thrift shop operated by volunteers of the Ryther League. ReStyle for Ryther is in Ballard, but donations should be brought to Ryther at 2400 NE 95th Street during office hours.
–Bring a work project group: businesses and organizations may give time to do projects at Ryther, as pictured in a recent patio renovation by Windermere Real Estate.
–Sponsor or host a table at Ryther’s Annual Fundraising Luncheon in November.
–Provide holiday wishes and needs: purchase items that are both requested and needed.
–Become a volunteer, member of the Ryther League, or foster parent.
A Ryther Chronicle, February 1988. Ryther administrative office reference collection, accessed June 12, 2013.
Ryther, Mother Olive (1849-1934) HistoryLink Essay #546.
Ryther.org webpage. All photos used in this article courtesy of Ryther. Our special thanks to architectural historian Mimi Sheridan for her 2014 work in researching and updating the history of Ryther and its succession of buildings/locations.
Ryther property records for 2400 NE 95th Street, Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA, accessed January 29, 2014.
Ryther remodelling completed in 2015: http://www.neimantaber.com/rythercampus
Seattle in the 1880s by David Buerge, 1986. Seattle Public Library (Central) Seattle Room, 979.7772 B862S.
Unto the Least: A Biographic Sketch of Mother Ryther, by Cora G. Chase, 1972. Seattle Public Library (Central), 9th floor biographies.
Ryther: Expressing the Evolution of Child Care. Architectural history report, Mimi Sheridan, AICP, 2014.
“Growing Up with Mother Ryther” by Juanita Dennis, Seattle Daily Times, October 29, 1972, page 156. Tells of the life of Mother Ryther’s City Mission Foundling Home circa 1907 when it was located in the Pontius Mansion.
“Tots and Toys Taken by Auto, Time Arrives to Go to Stone Way Home,” Seattle Daily Times, May 7, 1920, page 11.
“Moving Day.” Seattle Daily Times, June 14, 1957, page 12.
What an interesting legacy. Thanks for sharing.