I live in Los Alamos, New Mexico, famous for its contribution to building the atomic bombs used to end World War Two. The land and buildings from which the war-time laboratory was built was a boy’s preparatory school: the Los Alamos Ranch School. It was established in 1917 and lasted until it was acquired by the War Department to support the war effort in 1942. The school’s largest enrollment was about forty students in the 1930s, it was supported completely by donations and fees from the parents of the students, the ages were typically 12 to 17, and most of the students were from wealthy families in large metropolitan cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
It was begun not as a premier educational facility but as a rough-and-tough working ranch that provided boys with a rigorous physical environment that instilled individual character traits of independence, manhood, responsibility, rigor, pride, courage, working skills, and others that reflected the “Western Frontier” qualities made famous by John C. Fremont, Kit Carson, Lewis and Clark, explorers, cowboys, ranchers, and other frontiersmen. For example, a student enrolled at the Ranch School was assigned a personal horse and equipment, wore shorts the year around, slept outside on sleeping porches, performed calisthenics at 6:30 every morning (shirtless, in the sunlight, darkness, rain or snow), worked in the fields as needed for supporting the Ranch, and went on periodic horse packing trips that could last for months.
After reading books about Los Alamos, I found books that described other similar schools established in that period. Uniformly, they were created to serve the needs of the wealthy families in America. There were many “ranch schools” established in the early twentieth century, like the Thatcher School, California; Evans School (Arizona); Montezuma Mountain School, California; Valley Ranch School, Wyoming; Fresnal Ranch School, Arizona; Judson School for Boys, Arizona; Hacienda del Sol, Arizona; Jokake School, Arizona; Desert Willow Ranch School, Arizona; and several others. These schools (most of them in the Southwest; most were boarding schools; most of them year-round; most were for boys only; almost all served the late elementary to high school levels) came into existence primarily to answer the growing problem of raising rich kids who had not worked for the family money.
It was a big problem at the beginning of the century. The Gettys, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Heinz family, and the slew of substantially monied families worried that their children (those heirs soon to take over the family businesses and the wealth involved) would lack the moral fiber of the family patriarchs who were “self-made” men that had worked for the wealth. Well-to-do fathers, in particular, worried that their sons would be inadequate, weak, self-centered, lazy, entitled, and lack the responsibility and leadership qualities needed to preserve the families’ legacy.
In response to that, wealthy families and educational entrepreneurs created “schools” that provided not only academic education but also imposed standards of behavior for integrity, courage, creativity, mental discipline, citizenship, manners, and outdoor skills, as well as the physical rigor that would develop all of that vital testosterone valued by their parents. As the schools grew, they developed the stellar academic prowess that made them and their graduates famous. Several were recognized as respected college preparatory schools.
These schools were a world designed and crafted by the wealthy to get their children ready to assume their own role in that world.
This whole environment and the details of the children growing up under these ranch schools fascinated me, and, in particular, made me wonder what things might have gone wrong. Were there any kidnappings? Did anyone ever run away? Some of these children’s parents were among the richest people in the world; were there ever threats? Blackmail? Secrets? Manipulations? Intrigues?
Okay, so my mind is a little twisted. But this situation - unknown to most people today but not hard to identity with, as the entitlement problems brought on by wealth haven’t gone away – makes me think that there’s a great plot here: a good mystery, an unusual crime, a foiled scheme. How unusual it must have been for some of these kids to vacation in the Hamptons and then be riding through the wildernesses of Arizona and New Mexico surrounded by people with less money than what the students had just spent on new shoes. Was there ever a mischievous prankster among the lot? How about the lowly instructors who were never paid much, teaching kids that had money falling out of their pockets: it had to be tempting to imagine various ways to tap into that wealth.
Now that I have found a point of historical fascination, I need a good plot to go with it.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.