Olive “Ollie” Spore Ryther spent her life caring for orphaned children. Her 1934 obituary stated: “Thousands of men and women, who as children knew Mother Ryther as their only mother, will be grief stricken. Childhood has lost a real friend." The Kitsap County Herald article estimated that she and her staff had cared for more than 3,100 children during her 51 years of service.
In 1867 at the age of 18, Olive Hannah Spore married Noble Ryther, a carpenter, in their native Iowa. The couple soon had three daughters. As active members of the Methodist Church, they dedicated their lives to the ministry. In 1874, Noble left the family behind and moved to Seattle, a frontier town with few social services. He lived at the City Mission on the Seattle waterfront overlooking Elliott Bay, where he provided spiritual guidance, food, and shelter to indigent men.
To help support his family, he built homes and sent his earnings to Ollie. He paddled back and forth across Lake Washington in a canoe to clear his claim, located north of what is now Kirkland. Seven years later, he finished building his own cabin and sent for the family.
Within a year, Ollie gave birth to a son. Then she nursed a destitute neighbor and made her the death-bed promise that she and Noble would adopt her four children to raise as their own. At the time, there was no orphanage in the region. Ollie made a vow to never turn an orphaned child away. With their cabin bursting at the seams, the Rythers moved to a larger home in the Central Area.
Ollie took the job of cook at the City Mission, where she turned her attention to prostitutes and tried to rescue them from lives of ill repute. The City of Seattle consequently appointed her as women’s jail matron. Since there was no jail for women, Ollie housed the prisoners in barricaded upstairs rooms in her own home. On occasion she had to administer small doses of morphine to those who were addicted to drugs.
Recognizing an unmet need, the Rythers founded the City Mission Foundling Home for unwed mothers and their babies, which was also located in their home. Popularly known as Mother Ryther, Ollie served multiple roles as director and staff of the new agency. Pregnant girls and prostitutes found shelter in the home. Everyone helped with the chores and learned to provide proper care for infants. A major objective was to help the young mother toward self sufficiency. When one of her charges found suitable employment, Ollie offered to provide day care.
By the late 1890s, other organizations were providing services for unwed mothers, so the Rythers narrowed their focus to caring for orphaned and abandoned children. With help from other women, Ollie worked the waterfront and the “red light” district, looking for orphans as well as for donations. One of her companions was Emma Ray, an African American activist in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Mother Ryther worked tirelessly, caring for her children and nursing those who were sick or injured. In a house with no plumbing, she and members of her growing family cooked, gardened, cleaned, milked cows, and gathered eggs. Mother Ryther sent all of her children to the Seattle Public Schools, expecting boys to learn a trade by age 16. After one year of high school, her girls enrolled in business college so that they too could earn a living.
Her ways of making do sometimes shocked the business community and frustrated members of her board. She kept no records or reports. If she was unable to pay the rent, she appealed to friends, neighbors, and local businesses for help. Once, when 25 of her children needed shoes, she marched them into a shoe store and announced to the startled proprietor: “These children are staying here until you fit them all with shoes -- that’ll be your contribution to the Ryther Home" (The Seattle Times). Many admired her wisdom, dedication, and good humor. Farmers often brought donations of produce and dairy products, and women’s groups made clothing for the children.
By the turn of the century, Mother Ryther and the city health department were at odds. Health officials threatened to close the home for failing to meet codes. One of her staunchest supporters was Laurence Colman, a member of the family that built the Colman Dock, Seattle's ferry terminal. He raised funds to renovate the Ryther Home and to bring it up to code with installation of plumbing and electricity.
The Rythers then suffered personal tragedies that led to more serious financial setbacks. Despite substantial medical bills, they lost one of their biological daughters to the smallpox epidemic, and another daughter became crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. In 1905, the mortgage company foreclosed on their house. Once again, Laurence Colman came to the rescue and found them a large mansion on Denny Way. He was able to arrange for a modest rental fee of $100 per month, since the once grand home was in a state of disrepair. The family lived there for 15 years until the house deteriorated to the point that it was beyond repair.
Mother Ryther’s supporters launched a campaign to raise funds for a new brick home, located at NE 45th Street and Stone Way in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. One of their fundraising strategies was to sell bricks to be used in the construction. On moving day, local citizens turned out in a fleet of private autos to transport the large family to its new home.
As Ollie grew older and reportedly more domineering, members of her board made several unsuccessful attempts to oust her. On one occasion, they appointed a new superintendent. But within three weeks her replacement was gone and Mother Ryther was back at the helm. At that point she made the concession of allowing trained nurses to examine and vaccinate her children. An adoring public thwarted her board’s continued efforts to replace her. In 1930, Ollie reluctantly went on stage at the Pantages Theater to accept a special "Seattle's Sweetheart" award.
Mother Ryther managed the home until her death at the age of 85 on October 2, 1934. During the next year, the home closed down, while the board sought a way of continuing to serve children. The board accepted recommendations from the University of Washington School of Social Work to reopen the facility as a psychiatric service center for children with “emotional instability or behavior problems.”
Support for the Ryther Child Center was to come from community funds. In 1937 community women organized a network of Ryther Four and Twenty Clubs, whose on-going mission is to raise funds for the home.
In 1954, as traditional orphan homes fell out of vogue, the Ryther Child Center changed its name and moved to its 10-acre campus in north Seattle, where its revised mission is to care for moderately-to-severely disturbed children. Following Mother Ryther’s philosophy, it continues to focus on developing each child’s individual potential.
The former orphan home on Stone Way is now operated by United Cerebral Palsy as a residential and program center.