Detroit businessman Ashley Pond started the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1917 to help boys become strong young men through a life of rigorous outdoor living and classical education. Plagued by bronchitis and other ailments as a child, Pond wanted to give youngsters a chance to improve their health away from polluted, urban environments.
The school began with a few ranch buildings from the Harold H. Brook homestead and the newly constructed Big House, a two-story, upright log building which housed classrooms, a dining hall, and school offices. Later, screens were added to the wrap-around portal, and the boys slept on the porch year-round, no matter what the weather.
Director A.J. Connell molded the school into his image, one that eliminated the influence of coddling mothers and emphasized the outdoors, discipline, and solid academic preparation. Pond remained on the school’s board of directors until his death in 1933 but had no direct involvement with the school after the early years.
Connell recruited a faculty made up of mostly Ivy League and other elite Eastern college graduates who brought with them youth and enthusiasm. Head Master Lawrence Hitchcock gave his masters freedom to teach as they saw best. The curriculum was standard for college preparatory schools of the time, and high academic standards helped recruit boys from moderately wealthy families.
One way the Los Alamos school differed from other health schools at the time was its integration with Boy Scouts. Boys in the school belonged to Los Alamos Troop 22, the first mounted scout troop in the country and now one of the nation's oldest continuous troops. Boys were divided into patrols, Piñon, Juniper, Fir and Spruce, by size and ability rather than age. The Boy Scout uniform was the Los Alamos Ranch School uniform, including shorts year-round.
Upon arrival at the school, each boy, ages 12 to 18, was assigned a horse. Every Monday, the boys spent afternoons working on community service projects such as trail building or improving the athletic facilities like the rifle range or tennis courts. Reports on the community work went home to parents along with academic grades and physical development scores.
Other afternoons were spent in sporting activities, swimming, fishing, hunting, hiking, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, and, in the winter, skating on Ashley Pond or skiing on Sawyers Hill. Students also had access to a woodworking shop and dark room as well as music lessons.
Camping trips into the surrounding mountains were frequent and well-remembered. The ins and outs of camping were as much a part of the ranch school curriculum as Latin and geometry.
Meals were specially planned to meet the nutritional needs of growing boys, and the food was generally said to be excellent. Both masters and students recalled times they would be told to leave not just the table, but the school, if they did not eat everything on their plates.
In its 25 years, the school educated more than 600 boys, most of whom went on to successful careers. Some of the more prominent students include author Gore Vidal; Arthur and Robert Wood, former president and former general counsel, respectively, of Sears and Roebuck; and Roy Chapin, president of American Motors Corp. (Read more about Peggy Pond Church, Ashley Pond's daughter and wife of Ranch School master Fermor Church, in a paper by Historical Society board member Sharon Snyder.)
On Dec. 7, 1942, a year to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, A.J. Connell shared a letter from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson with the students and faculty. The U.S. Army was taking over the school’s property in "the interests of the United States in the prosecution of the War..." Christmas holidays were canceled and a special schedule set up so the boys could complete the school year by February. The last four graduates, including Ashley Pond's grandson, Theodore Church, received their diplomas on January 21, while bulldozers and mechanical diggers were already tearing up the mesa to make for the Manhattan Project. (Ranch School graduate Col. Whitney Ashbridge would become the commanding officer of Army post in Los Alamos.)
More information on the Ranch School era of Los Alamos can be found in book such as When Los Alamos Was a Ranch School, and other publications from the Los Alamos Historical Society. Please visit our Shop for information on these and other books on the natural and cultural history of Los Alamos.