Los Alamos Ranch School Closes
There was no Christmas vacation at the Los Alamos Ranch School in the winter of 1942. Informed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson in a December 1 letter that the Army would take over the property in February 1943, Ranch school director A. J. Connell advised his students that they would have to work through the vacation to complete the school's annual curriculum.
Laboratory theoretical physicist Stirling Colgate, then a Ranch School student, remembers that on the evening of Dec. 7, 1942, the students were called together and told the news. Some of the more observant physics students had recognized Ernest Lawrence among the advance parties sent to the school, so they could guess that the Army project would have something to do with nuclear physics.
Lawrence, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1938, was not unknown to the wider world as were his companions, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edwin McMillan.
The closing of the Ranch school was the end of school founder Ashley Pond's dream. He had come west as a boy to be reinvigorated by the thin, fresh air of New Mexico, as had many others suffering lung diseases. So successful was the cure that he tried to found a boys school near Mora, N.M., in 1904, but that version of his dream literally washed away in a flood.
Supported by automobile manufacturers from his home town, Detroit, Pond subsequently founded a dude ranch, the Pajarito Club, in Pajarito Canyon (Technical Area 18) on the eve of World War I. The Pond cabin, also known as the Dwight Young Cabin (after a lab staff member who lived there for a time), still stands and was accepted for inclusion on the State Register of Cultural Properties in 1989.
Pond planned to establish a ranch school on a nearby homestead owned by his ranch manager, H. H. Brooks, where boys might "learn by doing' in the outdoors, in a style reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt's ideal of the vigorous life. Before leaving to join the American Red Cross in 1918, Pond bought Brooks' homestead and hired Connell, then a Santa Fe National Forest ranger, to run the school. Connell organized the school on the model of the Boy Scouts of America, consonant with Pond's vision of the outdoor life, and the scout uniform became that of the school. Its students became Troop 22 of the BSA.
Connell added a standard college preparatory curriculum to the existing routine of afternoons and weekends spent outdoors.
The first headmaster was Fayette Curtis. The academic program he mapped out with Connell included English, history, mathematics, science, languages, art and music. Subsequently, teachers like Church added advanced subjects like nuclear physics, physiology and aeronautics.
Between 1920 and 1942, about 40 students between the ages of 12 and 16 attended the school annually, paying a tuition averaging $2,400, about $23,000 in today's dollars.
Among the more famous graduates were Colgate; John Crosby, founder of the Santa Fe Opera; Professor Edward Hall of Northwestern University; New Mexico artist Wilson Hurley; and industrial executives like Roy Chapin of American Motors and John Reed of the Santa Fe railroad. Novelist Gore Vidal also attended the school for a short time.
The regime endured by the boys who came to the ranch school was almost as stiff as the tuition. Divided into groups according to their physical maturity, they slept in the fresh air of screened-in porches at the Big House (on the site of the present Community Center). The seniors slept at Spruce Cottage (the home just north of the historical society), the headmaster's quarters.
Students rose at 6:30 a.m., assembled for 15 minutes of calisthenics, ate breakfast at 7 a.m., made their beds, cleaned their rooms and then attended class from 7:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m.
Afternoons were spent working on the ranch or in sports activities. Work, physical development and academic achievements were all regularly reported to parents. Horseback rides, musical events, hikes, hunting expeditions, camp outs, an annual play and a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta were among the many activities at the school.
Fuller Lodge, designed by Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem and built in 1928, served as cafeteria, infirmary, classroom building and social center where, for example, girls from Santa Fe's Brownmore Girls School might come to dance with the boys, who wore their Scouting shorts even on such occasions.
The lodge was given to the school by lumberman Philo C. Fuller, the father of Edward P. Fuller, a wealthy Detroit resident who purchased the Ranch School mortgage for Pond. A sawmill was set up at the site to prepare 800 ponderosa pines personally selected by the donor and architect. The building, which remains today, is an architectural tribute to the school.
An arts and crafts building with carpentry and woodworking shops was also donated by a parent in 1934. It housed a music room and a physics and chemistry laboratory as well.
In 1940, the school reached its peak enrollment of 47 students and its physical plant was complete.
The war years saw a decline in enrollment and the loss of faculty. Headmaster Lawrence S. Hitchcock was called to active service in the Army and Church succeeded him. Another teacher, Cecil Wirth, resigned because of illness. To these losses, the Army added the loss of the site, which, because of the special nature of the educational experience, could not easily be replaced.
When Connell learned that the school was to be taken over by the Army, he decided that it must close. "So much about the Los Alamos Ranch School was indigenous and appropriate only to its surroundings - the whole program, the life, the very spirit of the school developed out of its location and local tradition - that the conviction grew that this school could not be transplanted,' he told alumni.
On Jan. 21, 1943, the final diplomas given by the Los Alamos Ranch School were awarded to Collier W. Baird and Colgate of New Jersey and William Edgar Barr and Theodore Spencer Church of New Mexico.
In 1944, Connell died in Santa Fe. Later that year, Fermor Church opened a "Los Alamos School' in Taos, but it closed in 1946, ending, except in the memory of its students and staff and in the historic district of Los Alamos, the story of the Los Alamos Ranch School.
The Lodge and the Big House became social gathering places during the war, and a number of the other buildings were turned into housing for the soldiers and scientists who came to work on the Los Alamos project. Because the school buildings were the only houses in Los Alamos with bathtubs during the war, these resi- dences located on what are now 22 and Nectar streets were called "Bathtub Row."