The book, “Los Alamos, the Ranch School Years 1917-1943,” by John D. Wirth and Linda Harvey Aldrich, describes a sweet illustration of “a star-strewn winter evening, with skiers and bonfires outside Fuller Lodge, on the 1928 Christmas card sent to parents and friends of the school.”
The mentioned school is the famed Los Alamos Ranch School. Well-heeled families sent their sons to the boarding school to grow into educated leaders and capable, rugged outdoorsmen. While the success of these aims varied among the students, the surrounding nature provided an idyllic backdrop for their education.
This vintage Christmas card from 1928 conveyed a sense of this idyll. Luckily, a member of the Bradbury team recently came into possession of one of these small treasures. The illustration by an unknown artist glows with a sense of nostalgia and the brisk comfort of a snowy night. It practically twinkles. Inside the card is a short poem by Peggy Pond Church:
Starlight sparkles and little fires glow
Over the white and silent snow,
And a Christmas wish that is old and true
Shines from our mesa land for you.
Back in the card’s original era, most students returned to their respective homes for the holidays. For Ranch School employees and their families, the season brought an annual Christmas celebration. Held in Fuller Lodge, the party featured a dinner, presents for the children, and an appearance from Santa Claus. One year each family received a sled. The Christmas celebration was merry and memorable, an annual highlight through the years.
Then in 1942, the war came.
A blue Christmas
On the first year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Ranch School students gathered for an assembly. The school’s head, A.J. Connell, read aloud to the students a letter he had received from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The letter stated, in part, “You are advised that it has been determined necessary to the interests of the United States in the prosecution of the War that the property of Los Alamos Ranch School be acquired for military purposes.”
This not only meant that students, teachers and administrators had mere weeks to pack up and leave, but the emerging world war brought a true bah-humbug into their wintry wonderland: Christmas was canceled. No party. No presents. No Santa Claus.
Only one festivity occurred in the following weeks: the hasty graduation of four students who had completed their required coursework. Soon after, the Ranch School moved out and the Manhattan Project took over Fuller Lodge and Los Alamos.
Stars seemed bigger
The moment in time when winter fell on Ranch School students was a distinct era. The Los Alamos Historical Society’s book, “When Los Alamos was a Ranch School,” romantically details winter nights from this particular past. “December brought the cold down to Mesa level … As the nights grew longer, the stars seemed bigger and closer. There were no street lights at Los Alamos … As space seemed magnified by darkness, so the depth of silence intensified the night’s secret noises: the boom of a nighthawk’s wing like miniature thunder, an owl’s cry, often the melodic and noisy voices of coyotes. A pine cone rustling as it fell to earth made one’s hair rise a little in a primitive response to the unknown.”
To learn more about the Ranch School and the region’s history, visit the Los Alamos History Museum.