This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
By Dulce Kersting-Lark, LCHS Executive Director
Have you heard the name Carol Ryrie Brink? It hides in plain sight in a handful of places across Moscow. Maybe you have taken a stroll through Carol Ryrie Brink Nature Park near the city’s new play fields. Maybe your children have enjoyed a story hour in the Carol Ryrie Brink Reading Room, located in our historic Carnegie public library. Or maybe you have noticed Carol Ryrie Brink Hall on the University of Idaho’s campus, which was originally built as a dormitory but now houses faculty offices for the English department and others. The name is both ubiquitous and largely unfamiliar to many area locals.
Ms. Brink, who I will take the liberty to call Carol going forward, was an award-winning author who spent her formative childhood years in Moscow, and who would draw on her memories of the upstart community for the remainder of her life. Carol published more than thirty books, some for adults and many more for children. She had a natural talent for storytelling and a sincere desire to connect with her readers. Her works are rich with detail and can truly transport you to another time and place, including to Moscow at the dawn of the 20th century.
Carol was born in Moscow in 1895, just eight years after the city had been incorporated. The population hovered around 2,000 residents, meaning the small community was abuzz with activity. Hopes were high among the early investors and business class of Moscow, particularly given the placement of the state’s land-grant institution in 1889 and a strong agricultural economy that thrived in the surrounding hills. One of those adventurous souls betting on Moscow’s success was Alex Ryrie, Carol’s father. Ryrie and three of his brothers had immigrated to America from Scotland in the late 19th century. In Moscow he established himself as a leader, becoming one of the earliest mayors, as well as a successful businessman involved in the real estate and insurance fields. He and his brother Donald built fine homes on South Polk Street and enclosed their yards with a single picket fence. You can still appreciate Alex Ryrie’s vision for a striking home by driving past the intersection of A and Polk Streets; it is the “Pink House” on the corner. It was in that home that he started his family with Henrietta Watkins.
Even more distinguished than her father was Carol’s maternal grandfather. Dr. William Watkins was the most prominent physician in Moscow at the turn of the century. He operated an office in the single-story brick building on the north side of Second Street, between Main Street and the mid-block alleyway. His reputation as a skilled doctor and civic minded community member were quickly established after his arrival in 1887, accompanied by his wife Caroline Woodhouse. Dr. Watkins was a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Idaho from 1893 to ’95, as well as the president of the Idaho State Medical Association in 1893 and ’94. The couple had three daughters, Henrietta, Elsie, and Winifred, and they made their home on South Van Buren Street. The home was located across the street and just a half block north from the First Presbyterian Church, which was an important location in Carol’s early life because her father Alex Ryrie was an active and devout member. Ryrie wrote out the church’s weekly bulletin in longhand and would even add small drawings in free spaces. It seems likely that Carol inherited at least part of her creativity from her father.
Despite possessing all the ingredients for a nurturing and privileged childhood, successive waves of tragedy struck Carol’s family that would forever change her life. In 1900, at the tender age of five, Carol’s father Alex died of consumption. Also known as tuberculosis, consumption was the leading cause of death at the turn of the century in America. Carol’s mother soon remarried a timber locator named Nat Brown, who proved to be a poor substituted for Alex. It was well known in town that Brown drank too much and was an all-around scoundrel. The young girl’s once warm home was plunged into unhappiness. Then in 1901 the family was further rocked by the murder of Dr. Watkins, who was one of several victims of a Moscow man who went on a shooting spree. The shooter, William Steffens, fled to his home near the Moscow Cemetery, tailed by a posse of local men looking to apprehend him. A shootout ensued between Steffens, holed up in the second story of his home at the corner of White Avenue and Mountain View Road, and the sheriff’s posse, from which the culprit did not emerge alive.
It is often said that tragedies come in threes, and that would be the case for young Carol. The sadness and disappointment of her second marriage, coupled with the loss of her father and husband, were too much for Henrietta to bare. Carol’s mother took her own life in 1905. In the course of five short years Carol had experienced enough pain to fill a lifetime. Thankfully her grandmother, Caroline, was there to pick up the pieces. “Gram” as she was often called by Carol and others, was a woman of remarkable courage and steadfast love. Together with her middle daughter Elsie, Gram raised Carol in the Watkins family home on Van Buren. It was not a traditional home for a child, it was quieter and less lively than the homes of her peers, but it was filled with rich stories and ample space for Carol to indulge her imagination.
Carol was a shy child, and took great pleasure in spending time alone. Gram, perhaps seeing her granddaughter’s need to work through her emotions, gave Carol a great deal of freedom to wander. She had a beloved pony named Timmy that provided her the means to explore Moscow’s bustling streets as well as the rolling Palouse hills that unfurled at the edges of town. Later in life, Carol would recall how she filled her “happy but lonely” childhood. “I made most of my own entertainment…I read and wrote and drew pictures and made doll clothes and furniture. My dolls were never my babies, but were actors in long continued stories that I played from day to day…I spent hours and hours every summer riding over the beautiful Idaho Hills, observing things around me and telling myself stories. I had seen enough trouble and unhappiness as a child to appreciate the good things and to understand serious things in life.”
Carol’s penchant for stories undoubtedly came from Gram. Caroline Woodhouse grew up in Wisconsin in the middle of the 19th century, when that part of the country was considered America’s frontier. She entertained her granddaughter with vivid tales of life in a log cabin, miles from any town, assembling life’s necessities from the forest that surrounded the family home. The well-worn stories were etched into Carol’s mind, so much so that if her grandmother missed a detail or mixed up a sequence, she would protest and claim “that’s not the way it goes!” Storytelling was a craft in the Watkins home, and one that transcended the generations.
Part of Carol’s high school years were spent in Oregon at the Portland Academy, where she began to break out of her shell. Although she had been writing prose and poetry for years, it was not until her junior year at the academy that she worked up the courage to submit a story for publication in the school’s magazine. The piece ran in the following month’s edition, and proved to be what Carol herself called a “Cinderella affair.” For the remainder of her time at Portland Academy she was published in each monthly magazine, and this once-timid girl was even escorted by the “handsome and popular” editor to the senior prom. Carol returned to Moscow the following fall to attend the University of Idaho as a changed woman.
College life suited Carol well. Reflecting on her time at the university many years later, she recalled being “happy to be in the swim at last after being lonely and shy for so many years.” Her involvements were many, including being the society editor for the Argonaut student newspaper, joining the Gamma Phi Beta sorority, taking part in student events like the May Queen procession, and gaining membership in the exclusive Sans Souci club. The latter was a group formed by English professor Wilkie Collins, a man who shared his name with a great Victorian novelist, but appears to have published very little in the way of his own work.
Collins was, according to Carol, “an expansive, good-looking man with rolling nautical gait which was supposed to have originated in his years of deck pacing in the Merchant Marine.” Students, and in particular female English students, were enamored with their Wilkie Collins. “This glamourous aura of having lived genuinely rather than vicariously is much more important to the freshman student than the authorities ever realized. We hung on Wilkie’s every word, uttered in a lazy drawl that seemed to roll with the sea as surely as his walk did…An English teacher, oh, assuredly more than that – an influence, certainly an influence!” Given Carol’s clear affection for her professor, expressed more than fifty years after her time in college, it is little wonder that she leapt at the chance to be part of his select group of students invited to a regular Sunday literary circle convened in his personal boarding room, located on the second floor of the McConnell Mansion. The San Souci Club, alternatively called the Sans C Club (with the “C” standing for chaperone), was made all the more enticing because “it was understood that the Dean of Women was seriously concerned. Freshman girls meeting in a man’s room with older boys!”
Despite her many social pursuits and blossoming friendships, Carol was restless and felt that there must be more to the world beyond the shadow of Moscow Mountain. Once again her desire to wander took hold and Carol chose to transfer to University of California at Berkeley for her senior year. During that final year of school she maintained a long-distance relationship with Raymond Brink, whom she had met as a teenager while Brink was teaching math at Moscow Prep School. The two determined they would marry following Carol’s graduation. Initially the couple planned to enjoy a simple ceremony in the Van Buren home where Carol had been nurtured by Gram and Aunt Elsie. The latter woman, however, felt Carol was giving up her opportunity to be a serious author and an independent woman by marrying so early, and thus forbid the young bride from marrying at home. Instead the future Mr. and Mrs. Brink traveled east to be married in Wisconsin at the groom’s family home. Later in life, Carol recalled how that trip felt to her. “The world unfolded outside the window of the railroad car,” and she thought to herself how small and isolated Moscow felt. As this final sting of disappointment faded, however, Carol’s heart would soften to her hometown.
The Brinks settled in Minneapolis where Raymond became a respected faculty member of the University of Minnesota mathematics department, and Carol happily took on the role of supporting wife, caring mother, and gracious hostess. And still she found time to write. Sometimes it was on the end of an ironing board, sometimes next to the kitchen sink, and frequently it was after the children had gone to bed. Carol was born to be a storyteller, and she could not help but share her gift with others.
Her first book, a story for children title Anything Can Happen on the River, was published in 1934. Even before it could go to print, Carol was already working on her next book. Just as she had devoured the stories of her grandmother’s upbringing in the wilds of Wisconsin, Carol knew that other children would delight in the details and excitement of a time gone by. Caddie Woodlawn is a children’s fiction that is deeply rooted in the real experiences of Caroline Woodhouse. Although some elements were altered in order to create a fluid narrative, the core of the book is very much true to life. Caddie Woodlawn was published in 1935 and the following year it was chosen for the Newberry Medal as the most distinguished new contribution to children’s literature. It was so popular, in fact, many children and adults hoped for a full series, reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House collection. According to one retrospective of her work, “because the children who read Caddie knew that it was based on real characters and events, Carol felt she could not misuse that trust by fabricating new stories.” Any of Gram’s stories which had not fit into the storyline of Caddie Woodlawn were compiled in Carol’s 1939 work Magical Melons.
Carol then turned her attention to writing for an adult audience. In 1944 she published the first in a trilogy of works that once again mined her childhood memories. Buffalo Coat is a fictionalized retelling of Dr. and Mrs. Watkins’ migration to Moscow, though they are recast as Dr. and Anna Hawkins, and the up-and-coming community is named Opportunity. The plot focuses on the ambitions and rivalries that most certainly fueled Moscow’s growth, though Carol uses her artistic license to interweave the stories of real individuals to add drama and intrigue. Her grandfather’s murder is a central plot point in Buffalo Coat, as is the tragic double-suicide of a married doctor and the Methodist minister’s daughter which really did rock Moscow in 1902.
The publication of Buffalo Coat raised more than a few eyebrows in Moscow, given that so many residents could identify the real events and individuals that served as a foundation for her story. While Carol thought she must have been very much forgotten by that point, a great number of people still felt connected to her and the Watkins family. Indeed even three decades later when Latah County Historical Society arranged for Buffalo Coat to be reissued, locals had strong feelings about the author’s work. Alma Lauder Keeling, for instance, wrote to LCHS in 1980 to express the following:
“I assume you are wondering what a former M.H.S. classmate of Carol Ryrie Brink’s thinks of her book, “Buffalo Coat,” now that I’ve read it. Well, frankly, I can hardly say! I surely can “relate” to a lot of it, but as for liking it – well, let’s skip that. It is not my chosen kind of reading, as I much prefer a book that is an uplifter rather than a depressant! But – I guess it is more or less “early history” of our nice town.”
Carol’s other two Idaho novels, Strangers in the Forest and Snow in the River, generated less community hand-wringing but are no less captivating. Strangers in the Forest fictionalizes the experiences that Carol’s Aunt Elsie had making a go of it on a timber homestead claim near Clarkia, Idaho. It is a story of ambition, perseverance, disappointment, and self-discovery. Carol’s mother’s death underpins the plot of Snow in the River, as do the adventures of the Ryrie brothers. Taken together, this trilogy of fictionalized stories gives the reader a very real sense of Moscow and indeed north central Idaho at the turn of the century.
Carol Ryrie Brink published more than thirty books in her lifetime, wrote several plays, and was a talented poet. Despite her many accomplishments, by the 1980s she was unknown to most residents of Moscow. It is largely thanks to the interest and dedication of one woman that we were reintroduced to our hometown author. Mary Reed, the longtime director of Latah County Historical Society, was surprised to learn after taking her post at the McConnell Mansion that one of her favorite childhood writers had spent time in that very house. Soon Mary located Carol, who was by then living in San Diego, and arranged for a meeting and oral history interview. The transcripts of those conversations now live in the LCHS archives, as do many more materials related to the author’s life and work. The resurgence of local interest helped spread Carol’s name through town and reintroduced Caddie Woodlawn, Buffalo Coat¸ and her entire catalogue to a new generation of readers.
I hope this summer you will pick up one of Carol’s books, from your local library, favorite bookstore, or our very own museum store. Not only will you be treated to an entertaining and engaging read, you will also likely gain an appreciation for the men and women who helped to build Moscow more than a century ago.