October 23, 2014

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School

Kim and I (see previous post A Very Mini Artist’s Colony in New Mexico) decided we just had to get out of the village the other day, so we headed over to Valles Caldera. It’s an amazing National Preserve about 40 minutes from the house.

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3339 600x445

To get there, we went through the town of Los Alamos, a place I’d never been. Of course I knew about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project—about the development of the first atomic bomb—but had only heard, in passing, about the elite boy’s school that was established there by Ashley Pond, a Detroit businessman. According to a book of memories titled, When Los Alamos was a Ranch School, published by the Los Alamos Historical Society, “The school was the culmination of Pond’s life-long dream of a school where a healthful, rugged, outdoor-oriented education would prepare city-bred boys for college and for life.” Kim knew quite a bit about its history and took me by the old Los Alamos Ranch School campus.

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3340 600x418
On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3343 600x450

Founded in 1917, on the isolated Pajarito Plateau, as a unique preparatory/boarding school for boys, its famous alumni include William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal. It feels rather poignant to have visited the school shortly before Vidal’s death on July 31st.

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3348 600x450
On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3351 600x450

Fuller Lodge, the main kitchen-dining room facility, was designed by Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem. I strolled through this amazing building and could almost feel the history of the place emanating from its log walls of ponderosa pine. Ah, the stories they could tell. There was a sleeping room upstairs outfitted exactly as it had been back then.

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3354 600x450
On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3356 450x600

Standing on the grounds, surrounded by downtown Los Alamos, it was still easy to picture what life must have been like back in the school’s heyday. Wide-open fields, mesas, the nearby Jemez Mountains and Valle Grande; troops of boys heading out on horseback for pack trips—not to mention the daily care of saddle and pack animals—something quite foreign to the school’s city-bred student body I’m sure.

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3357 600x441
On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3363 450x600

There are stories about the wildlife that shared the land with the school. According to Earl H. Kieselhorst, a student from 1919-1923, as quoted in When Los Alamos was a Ranch School, “In the summer of 1919 the bears were a constant source of amusement. They roamed freely with a pack of Airedales… With the first cold days of fall, they prepared to hibernate by dragging the doormats under the porch.”

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3365 600x450

Sadly, the school closed in 1942 when it and the surrounding land were purchased by the US Army’s Manhattan Engineering District for use in the top-secret development of the bomb. According to the Wikipedia entry about the school, “The site was chosen for the Manhattan Project because of its isolation, access to water, the fact that it had preexisting buildings which could be used for housing, the fact that much of the surrounding land was already owned by the federal government, had ample space, and was located on a mesa in which all entrances could be secured. The facility originally was referred to as ‘Site Y’, but would later become known as Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, then Los Alamos National Laboratory. During World War II, the school’s Fuller Lodge was used as a social gathering place for Los Alamos project personnel, and some other buildings were used for housing. The school buildings were known as “Bathtub Row” because they were the only houses in Los Alamos with bathtubs.”

On the Road in New Mexico: When Los Alamos was a Ranch School IMG 3368 600x441

I know that, for some, Los Alamos Labs is an important part of our nation’s history. However, the artist/dreamer in me feels a deep sense of remorse that what Ashley Pond conceived of and brought into being was cut short. Just imagine what might have been had generations of boys and, ultimately girls, been allowed to continue there, shaping a world view made sensitive to the balance of nature and its impact on our well-being—an education tied to the land. How much better that could have been than the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

Love to you all,
Jeane

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