‘Gruff exterior’ with ‘the soul of a poet’: A story about the enigmatic James W. Ryan and his Black Mountain poetry
July 2, 2010
Shortly after World War I, a shell-shocked veteran returned to his remote homestead on Black Mountain, carrying within him the remnants of pain suffered in the Great War.
Born in 1884 in New York, James W. Ryan moved with his family to Denver when he was a teen. Sometime before 1910, Jimmy moved on to homestead in remote Moffat County.
Little is known about Ryan.
There are oblique references to him in obscure memoirs, mundane bits of information gleaned from census and land records, and a few recollections from county residents who still recall him.
In the 1920s, "shell-shocked" was the common term for what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and that was the term used to explain Jimmy's sometimes erratic behavior.
One local old-timer recently recalled an incident to Museum of Northwest Colorado director Dan Davidson that highlighted the strangeness of Jimmy's behavior at times.
The old-timer, a young man at the time, had been up on Black Mountain with his family to cut corral poles when they were caught in a life-threatening storm.
They sought refuge at Jimmy Ryan's place, but he refused to let them even huddle on his porch. They had to spend the night on his property, out in the wild weather, a night the old-timer recalled as "the wettest night of my life."
Despite Jimmy's surliness, there lurked a gentle nature within him that he expressed in poetry.
His writing reflects a man much taken with the wild beauties of the mountain, its seasons and the spiritual elements found in that incredible solitude.
He wrote about his neighbors and love, about horses and nature. The verses are often refreshing and original, and they catch an element of his life's response to his homestead
existence that is truly genuine.
He published a small collection of his poetry in a book in 1929 while he was still living in Craig.
A copy of that slim volume recently came into the museum's collection, and it immediately captured the imagination of Davidson.
So little is known of Jimmy Ryan and his life here.
He died in a hospital in Denver in 1940, leaving behind his poetry, $32.46, a 1933 Chevrolet Coupe, a team of horses and his Black Mountain homestead, which was divided between his siblings.
Davidson is hoping that someone might still have recollections of Jimmy Ryan that they would be willing to share.
Call the museum at 824-6360 if you know anything about this reclusive homesteader with the gruff exterior and the soul of a poet.