This educational movement included Los Alamos. Before being developed into the wartime Lab to create the first atomic weapons, the mesa was home to one of the most prominent and pricey ranch schools in America.
The Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS), founded in 1917 by Ashley Pond II, integrated Boy Scouts training into a college preparatory curriculum. Classes fortified the mind while rigorous outdoor activity strengthened the body in a setting made mythic to many Americans by Western movies, dime novels, pioneer journals, and tourism advertising.
“Western ranch schools became a valued resource for the education of the elite because in the American mind, the West lacked the hindrances of inherited privilege and other cultural and social restraints that inhibited youth from becoming ‘self-made. ’ Its rugged environment forced adolescents to prove themselves, and cowboys and ranchers served as role models of self-made individuals, ” according to Prep School Cowboys.
A day in the life
At LARS, class sizes were small, usually three to four students, with yearly enrollment never exceeding 48 boys, ages 12 to 18.
The curriculum emphasized hands-on work, bodily health, and community stewardship. Students wore uniforms that mirrored Boy Scout apparel: khaki shorts, a khaki or wool flannel shirt, a Stetson hat, and a bandana. A typical weekday schedule was:
- 6:30 a. m. wake and drink a glass of water
- 15 minutes of exercise in the yard breakfast then room inspection
- 7:45 a. m. - 12:55 p. m. college preparatory classes
- 1 p. m. lunch followed by a short rest period afternoon recreation, including sports, trail rides, Scouting activities, and community work
- 6 p. m. supper, followed by a half-hour of listening to a professor read and study time
- 8:15 p. m. bedtime for younger boys
- 9 p. m. lights out for older boys
Professors had freedom to teach however they wanted so long as the frequently tested boys excelled. In Los Alamos The Ranch School Years 1917-1943, one student recalled how they played craps “using assigned algebra problems and Latin lines as currency, and luck determined whether our daily assignment was to be longer or shorter. ”
Saturdays contained all-day (sometimes overnight) trail rides and Sundays had a Scouting meeting.
Students shared a room for dressing, studying, and personal storage. Students and non-married professors slept year-round on an outdoor, screened porch of a building named the Big House. Heavy canvas shades kept out snow.
Lack of Women at LARS
Girls were barred admission and just two female faculty members were hired for a short time. The only females at LARS were a small group of professors’ wives, ranchers’ wives, their daughters, an occasional matron, and the school nurse.
According to Los Alamos the Ranch School Years 1917-1943, the school “tolerated faculty wives, ” but viewed them as “distracting. ” The women the school administration “liked best were those who didn’t ‘butt in’ but who stayed in the background, invisible but available when called upon to help or to teach boys the finer social skills. ”
In 1920, LARS cost $1,800. By 1928, tuition increased to $2,400, which is the 2022 equivalent of more than $39,000. Students were mostly from wealthy families, including owners of large corporations, like Colgate and Hilton.
Tuition didn’t include student spending at the Trading Post. Los Alamos the Ranch School Years 1917-1943 recounted a parent angry about a $600 bill. They were given “a detailed analysis, explaining that the required leather coat, helmet, boots, and Stetson hat should last for two years, and the bedroll, blankets, quilt, and sweater for three years. In part, [the director] said, the bill was greater than average because the boy bought, with parental permission, English riding boots and a .22 rifle. ”
Famous alumni include John Crosby, the founder of the Santa Fe Opera; Roy Chapin, CEO of American Motors; John Shedd Reed, president of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway; and author Gore Vidal.
For many students, LARS was “a strange and adventurous new world that would fill [us] with the keenest and most delightful memories of a lifetime, ” former student Earl Kieselhorst said of his 1919 summer.
Others, like future writer William S. Burroughs, hated it. Los Alamos The Ranch School Years 1917-1943, noted that he “chafed under the school discipline and several times was in trouble for use of drugs and alcohol. ”
Student Stirling Colgate was about 17 years old in the school’s final days when he recognized two visitors as nuclear scientist Ernest Lawrence and theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, even though they used assumed names.
In American Prometheus, Colgate recalled, “Those two characters showed up, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, one wearing a porkpie hat and the other a normal hat, and these two guys went around as if they owned the place. ”
Colgate would later attain his doctorate in nuclear physics from Cornell University, work on the hydrogen bomb, and return to Los Alamos to study supernovae at the Lab.
School’s out forever
In support of the Manhattan Project, which was the U. S. government’s top-secret effort to create the world’s first atomic bombs, the Army wanted to buy LARS.
The school hoped to negotiate a long-term lease so it could continue after the war. According to Los Alamos The Ranch School Years 1917-1943, acting headmaster, Fermor Church, said, “We rebuffed all advances ... until a letter from the Secretary of War left us no choice. ”
After haggling, the school accepted $440,000 (the 2022 equivalent of more than $7.2 million), based on the Army Corps of Engineers’ appraisal. This included over 700 acres, all buildings, 60 horses, two tractors, two trucks, 50 saddles, 800 cords of firewood, 25 tons of coal, and the 1,600-book library, according to The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
In January 1943, the Los Alamos Ranch School awarded diplomas to its last four graduates, including Colgate. In February, construction of Lab facilities and the secret city began. 🔎