This month for Women’s History Month, Ryther is celebrating the legacy of founder “Mother” Olive Ryther, who in 1885 took in her dying neighbor’s four children and raised them as her own. By the time she passed in 1934, she had “mothered” over 3,000 Seattle-area children in three different orphanages as well as her own home, which she opened up to “urchins,” female drug addicts, and prostitutes and their children.
Olive Ryther’s first charity work in the frontier town of Seattle included the downtown City Mission for men, where her husband Noble was a frequent volunteer, as well as working with “fallen women,” or prostitutes. Ignoring social expectations for respectable women such as herself, Ollie and her supporters visited the “red light” district often, meeting women for tea in the brothels.
- Mother Ryther’s Alder Street home in Seattle
The Rythers soon established (in their own home) the City Mission Foundling Home for unwed mothers and their children. It was during this time that Ollie became known as “Mother Ryther.” Many accounts tell of Ollie’s tenacity when soliciting donations for the children in her home. As reported in The Seattle Times, when the children were in need of new shoes, Ollie brought over 20 kids to a downtown shoe store and firmly informed the proprietor that they would not leave without new shoes for every child. Another account tells when the Home had come up short on its finances for the month. Olive spent the afternoon soliciting donations and reportedly sat on the stoop of a business for hours until its owner relented and wrote her a check.
All children in Ollie’s care attended the Seattle Public Schools at a young age and continued to vocational school as they entered their teens. Ollie’s relationships with local businesses provided her with a network through which many of her charges could find work. Olive Ryther provided by herself services to children that today require many trained workers.
Mother Ryther toiled in the care of children through three moves from their family home in what is now Kirkland to a home on Alder Street in Seattle, and then into an old mansion on Denny Way. Olive’s last move in 1920 was spearheaded by prominent Seattle businessman Laurence Colman who helped Mother Ryther get funding from other community leaders. Olive published this appeal in The Orphan, a periodical she produced:
“We have burdened mothers…with one, two, three, four and seven (children)- we want to make this home a haven of rest and comfort, and are planning to start a building fund so as to be ready soon to have a better place.”
The unique fundraising approach of small donations by many private citizens had proved successful. It was publicized in Seattle papers with headlines like, “Have You Bought a Brick for the Ryther Child’s Home?” On Thanksgiving Day, 1919, the cornerstone of the new Ryther Home was set, inscribed: “Dedicated to the life work of Mrs. Ollie H. Ryther.” In May of the following year, Mother Ryther and seventy-five children were moved by a parade of volunteers to their new home on Stone Way. The new building would comfortably and safely house the multitude of children under her care.
- Ollie and her Mother Ryther Dahlias named in her honor in Seattle, 1933
In her later years, an account tells of her unflagging dedication to daily life at the Ryther Child Home. “Mother Ryther is seventy-one years old.
Although she now has assistance with the cooking and housework, she oversees everything. She maintains an excellent discipline, and punishment is almost unknown, so effective is her influence. She says, ‘The essential thing is to love the children and understand them.’”
Mother Ryther carried on her duties without interruption until she fell ill in 1934. After a short period of illness, she passed on October 4th, 1934 at the age of 85. Seattle newspapers printed the news of her death the next day with headlines: “Mother Ryther’s Loving Work Ended by Death,” “Mother Ryther Goes to Rest as City Mourns,” and “Her Task is Ended.”
Olive Ryther’s steadfast love and understanding for children over her 50 year’s life work set the foundation and guiding principles that governed Ryther through the 20th century and today. Ryther continues to follow the spirit of Mother Ryther and her successor Lillian Johnson (stay tuned for her story) and have since refocused our mission to treat children, teens and families facing complex challenges using innovative and proven therapeutic techniques.