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Legal legacy: Ryan family donates items to museum

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Law books sit neatly on shelves defying the passing of years. They remind Don Ryan of being 14 and blowing dust off the books at his family’s law office. The Ryan law office had a lengthy history in Brainerd. His great-grandfather Michael Ryan opened the law practice in 1903 downtown in the First National Bank building on South Sixth and Front streets.

That legal legacy is now a few blocks away, part of a new display at the Crow Wing County Historic Society Museum. Don Ryan, Crow Wing County attorney, donated the office furniture including the wooden desk and narrow drawer plat book and map cabinet. There are photos, letterhead, trial exhibits, even a spittoon. Together they recapture a vintage piece of small town Americana with a main street fixture in the law office and note a family legacy spanning 92 years and four generations.

Family patriarch Michael Ryan was once a telegraph operator for the Burlington Northern Railroad. With ambitions for better things he enrolled in law school. He stopped off in Brainerd on his way between Hibbing and St. Paul and decided this was the small town setting he was looking for to start a law practice. He arrived in Brainerd with his wife, three small children, his mother and $65. During his first month, he made $12. That grew into $15 by the next month. He was described by one of his sons as dynamic trial lawyer who was so good at cross examinations witnesses shook on the stand, according to an article on the family in a 1984 William Mitchell magazine. He would go on to be a district court judge.

By 1910, that dynamic trial lawyer moved his practice to the Citizens Bank in the Parker Building on Seventh and Laurel streets. But more people may remember the Ryan law office in the long building across the street from the historic courthouse.

The law practice obviously made an impression. Michael Ryan’s three sons, Clement, Donald I. and Joseph all followed him in the profession. They attended St. Paul College of Law, now William Mitchell. When it was all said and done, eight Ryans would graduate from the St. Paul law college.

Clement and Donald joined their father’s firm in Brainerd while their brother Joseph branched out and started a firm in Aitkin. In the 1960s, the third generation was ready to join the family business. Clement’s son Robert and Donald’s son Thomas joined the law office in Brainerd while Joseph’s son Michael joined his father in Aitkin. Robert would go on to be a judge.

In a Dispatch article years ago, the family noted a general practice law firm meant covering a lot of ground from electrical plants to hog diseases. The cons to working with the family, Thomas said, was having the public know his father or uncles and expecting him to be as good as they were. “Sometimes, that’s a tough job,” he said.

Thomas’ son Don Ryan joined the family firm in 1988. The legal lines in the family tree branched out to include Thomas’ other son Patrick who became a lawyer. Another son, John, took a different but similar path and became a police officer.

Other additions to the firm included Dick Ebert, Max Ruttger and Criston Drake. Eventually the practice on South Fourth Street was known as Ryan, Ryan, Ruttger and Drake. The Ryan law practice ended in 1995 after Don Ryan was elected as county attorney.

Pieces of the family law office, from the furniture to the sign that once hung outside the office door, took up space in Don Ryan’s house.

For several years Don Ryan has worked with the historical society on the idea of the display. Most recently, Pam Nelson, historical society administrator, and Lynda Hall, assistant administrator, helped him with the display. When room used for storage on the third level opened up with the historic society’s recent renovations, a corner next to the exposed brick wall seemed the perfect setting. Downtown business owner Ed Menk donated a glass display case for part of the exhibit.

On a visit to the display, Don Ryan picked up a law book from the shelf remembering his teenage job of dusting off books. The smell of the leather-bound books with their aging paper remains a strong memory.

“To me that smells like the law,” he said.

Years ago, his grandfather was hired by property owners by Rabbit Lake near Crosby to fight the mining company that wanted to drain the lake. With the testimony of a Native American woman who remembered traveling that route as part of water passage, his grandfather was able to prove the lake was a navigable water and thus protected. “The state couldn’t drain it.”

When the Brainerd Armory was next to the law office, the tanks were parked outside the windows. The gun barrel from the tank pointed right into his father’s office. Don Ryan said if negotiations were difficult, his father would open the curtains.

“He figured it gave him an edge,” Ryan joked.

Now mementos of the family history are available to the public. Don Ryan said it just seemed right as a way to honor his family heritage.

“I was blessed with a heritage in law,” he said noting he was able to go off to school and “come back not only to a job but to a career. Not everybody is that lucky.”

A grand opening for the display is planned 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 8.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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