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The Man Behind the House

In January we published the story of the Ronald House and how landmark status was achieved for this beautifully restored home. With the focus on restoration and jumping through the hoops for establishing the home as a landmark, we said little about the man behind the house: James Theodore Ronald.

Although he would become a historical figure in Seattle, he came from humble beginnings. He was born the second of nine children to a struggling farm family in the Missouri Ozarks. He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He then traveled to California (1875) where he taught school in various small communities in the northeast (the Sierra foothills area.) He made the trip on what was called the emigrant train, not a first class adventure. One had to bring their own food along to make the 8 day trip from Omaha to Sacramento.

In 1877, his beloved Rhoda Coe made the trek from Missouri with a couple they both knew, and they married in Stockton. He had first met her in 1874, when she was only 16, and in his impetuous way, he declared her “the girl of my dreams”. Rhoda was more serious and took her time making decisions, but she was obviously a plucky young woman to make that trek across country to marry him three years later and live in what were essentially frontier towns in that era..

Although he soon rose to become a principal, J T Ronald had greater ambitions. He used the summer months to study law and passed the bar in 1882. He took the advice of a traveling evangelist to go to Seattle, “a little town on Puget Sound….a town which is certain some day to become a great city.” But it was a struggle: Seattle was a town with too many lawyers and not enough paying customers. He was fortunate to be appointed a Deputy District Attorney for King County at a salary of $20 per month. He became the Prosecuting Attorney in 1885.

The young couple often had to share housing with others and lived in areas that were not close to town. Rhoda never complained according to his memoirs, even though he knew she must have been lonely, especially when their good friends and neighbors decided to go back to California. It was after the great fire that he eventually built the home on 30th (which was then called Rainier Ave.)

His description of the great fire is extremely interesting, as it was quite personal for him. His law office was on the third floor of a building at First & Cherry, and when it caught fire, he fully expected to lose all of his law library and his records. Miners, whom he had helped with legal matters, came to the rescue and raced up the stairs and down, bringing all his records and all his law books out of the burning building. He lost only a few books of fiction and history.

For days men like these tried to rescue what they could from the burning area and instead of finding despair, he remarks that the men who lost entire buildings promised “to build it back bigger than ever“. Rhoda and other women cooked meals in makeshift kitchens for the brave men fighting the fire. Ronald describes the aftermath: “That burnt district, comprising about seventy-five acres, was a city of tents—tents everywhere—in every lot, housing businesses of all kinds.”

Being from the South originally, Ronald hired an architect to design the type of house he envisioned. This was the house he and Rhoda lived in with their three daughters until Rhoda’s death. The girls went through school and the University and even married in that house. When Rhoda died in 1926, he was lonely in the house without her and moved to the Exeter Hotel until his own death over 20 years later.

Ronald had a busy law practice during those years, but was persuaded to run for Mayor in 1892. He served for two years, and they were not happy years for him. There was a great recession during that time and Seattle, like many cities of the 1890’s, was filled with corruption. Ronald was a man of integrity and it was frustrating to him to be unable to rid the city of its corruption, including the Police Chief. Vested interests fought him at every turn.

When his term was over, he went back to practicing law and served on the Board of Regents at the University of Washington. He was appointed to the King County Superior Court in April, 1909, where he served for forty years! This was the job that he loved the most. The Seattle P-I editorial stated on his retirement that: “his never-failing good humor, his broad sense of humanity and his wise counsel will be sorely missed.”

Note: It is difficult to fully represent in such a limited space someone who had a long and illustrious career. I would encourage you to read his memoirs. If you are a history buff, you will find the trial of the Wobblies fascinating and if you’re a fan of “Then & Now” memorabilia, you will love his account of a road trip from Seattle to San Francisco in a time when roads were iffy and repair places scarce. The trip took fifteen days! Facts and quotes from Reflections Along the Wayside of Life, Judge J T Ronald’s memoirs.

~Diane Snell

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