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Los Alamos Ranch and the Manhattan Project

By David Joshua Anderson

The history of Los Alamos is a fascinating chapter in New Mexico history.  Los Alamos is one of the youngest counties in the state and has had a rich and varied past ranging from Indian tribes around 1100, Spanish explorers, ranchers, homesteaders, and one of the largest scientific research facilities in the world.  With the recent interest in the history of Los Alamos caused by the fiftieth anniversary of World War II and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, there has been much research devoted to the study of the town and its role in the Manhattan Project while overlooking an important and fascinating aspect of local history: the ranch school period of Los Alamos and its transition to the Manhattan Project.

Ashley Pond, the founder of the school, was raised in Detroit and struggled constantly with colds and bronchitis until “it seemed he was spending more time in the infirmary than in the classroom.” [1] His poor health persisted through college and later, when he was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, he contracted a nearly fatal case of typhoid and went out west to recover.[2]  While living among cowboys on working ranches he fell in love with the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape and decided that this was the kind of life that would prepare a boy for the responsibilities of manhood.  His vision was to provide young men with an active life on a working ranch, increasing their strength rather than wasting it in cities where he saw them “doing no good.”

In 1904, Mr. Pond was about to realize his dream with a ranch he had set up at Valmora.  This ranch, just northeast of Las Vegas, New Mexico on the Mora River was nearly prepared to open when, in late September, the river flooded and destroyed the ranch.[3] This disaster kept the ranch school as a vision but Mr. Pond vowed that if he had the opportunity again he would build his school on a high plateau, far from the danger of another flood.

Mr. Pond and his family moved around until 1914 when he began “promoting and managing the Ramon Vigil [land] Grant as a vacation club for wealthy businessmen, their families and friends.”[4]  This venture failed and the Pond family left Pajarito Canyon for the Los Alamos Ranch.  Mr. H. H. Brook owned the ranch, which consisted of 600 acres of land and 300 white face cows, and Mr. Pond bought a share of it.  After learning that he could not get along with Mr. Brook, Mr. Pond offered to buy all of his interest in the ranch.

On December 15, 1916, Mr. Pond’s lawyers presented a proposal to Mr. Brook’s attorney offering to buy the remainder of the ranch from him.  In the proposed purchase, Mr. Pond offered Mr. Brook $18,500 “for his interests in the corporation known as the Los Alamos Ranch, including the ranch property known as the Brook farm and all of the horses, hogs, farm equipment and buildings of every kind.”  Additionally Mr. Pond offered $1,500 for the property of Mr. Brook’s mother, Martha A. Brook.  Her ranch consisted of 132 acres, more or less, and any additional acreage which may have been available through her homestead application.

Mr. Brook was offered $3,000 upon acceptance of the deal, the remaining $15,500 at 8% interest within 1 year and the loan was to be secured by a mortgage on the property.  Additionally an escrow account was established with the $1,500 offered to Mr. Brook for his mother’s ranch.  The offer also included purchasing up to 100 of Mr. Brook’s white face cows at $50 a head for heifers under 2 years of age and $75 for other cows not yet over 5 years old.  As a result of this portion of the offer, Mr. Brook would relinquish his forestry grazing permits and also assign his special use permit for a school section adjacent to the property known as Brook farm to Mr. Pond.

Another condition of the agreement was that Mr. Brook would “make and deliver to Mr. Pond a full and complete inventory of all the personal property, effects and chattels, household effects, wagons and farm implements including crops.”[5] Mr. Brook would also submit in writing all of his plans and correspondence regarding the proposed school along with the promise that he would not hinder Mr. Pond’s efforts to start a school within the state of New Mexico for at least 5 years following the completion of the agreement.

The final stipulation of the agreement was that after Mr. Brook had transferred the title of the ranch property to Mr. Pond he would resign as director of the Los Alamos Ranch corporation, give Mr. Pond a power of attorney to take, receive or transfer any and all shares of stock in the Los Alamos Ranch, deliver possession of all property contemplated in the offer to Mr. Pond, ensure that the water system for the ranch was in working order, and vacate the property by January 1, 1917. [6]

When Mr. Brook agreed to the proposal to buy his shares of the Los Alamos Ranch, Mr. Pond received financial assistance from some of his friends in Michigan to meet his obligations.  One of the most important backers of Mr. Pond’s vision to build a ranch school for boys was Philo C. Fuller, a lumberman from Grand Rapids.  His son, Ed, was a young man with a crippled leg but a great enthusiasm for horseback riding and a love of the outdoors.  This enthusiasm of Ed’s and the fact that he was in better health at Los Alamos than he had ever been were important factors influencing the Fullers to assist in the financial support of the school in its early years.[7]

Mr. Pond made Edward Fuller and Albert J. Connell his associates when he founded the ranch school in 1917.  Mr. Connell, a United States Forest Officer and experienced Scoutmaster became the director of the school and in 1918 invited Fayette S. Curtis, Jr., a graduate of Yale, to be the first Head Master of the school.  Mr. Curtis guided the academic work of the school until his death in 1926 and was succeeded by Lawrence S. Hitchcock who served as Head Master of the school until its closure in 1943.  [Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942, Mr. Hitchcock, who was a Lt. Col. In the Army reserve, was recalled to active duty and Fermor S. Church became the acting Head Master of the school while never officially assuming the title of Head Master.]

The Los Alamos Ranch School was founded to give boys a truly comprehensive education by careful attention to physical, mental, and spiritual growth.  Los Alamos considered itself a pioneer “ranch school” and believed that a non-academic program should be based on genuine activities of western life appropriate to the surroundings, not influenced by the “make-believe” of vacation resorts, and not be restricted to conventional campus activities.  The School was also structured in such a way that its high academic standards would help both the better and slower students to realize their true abilities, and develop a foundation for future successful work.  Los Alamos spent a quarter-century making these ideals “the sound basis for the development of a sane and balanced life for the boy.”[8]  After helping to found the Los Alamos Ranch School, Mr. Pond gave up his active connection with the school but maintained an interest in its affairs and served on its Board of Directors until his death in July of 1933.

The first student to enroll in the ranch school, Lancelot Inglesby Pelly, was the son of the British Consul in Seattle.  Since he was the only student enrolled the first year, Mr. Connell provided companions for Lance from his Scout troop in Santa Fe who were already at home with western life and happy to help the newcomer learn the ropes.[9]

For the first couple of years, the School was operated as a combination cattle and guest ranch with tutoring on the side.  The main building, the Big House, served as dining room, kitchen, offices, boys’ and guests’ rooms as well as the library and classrooms.  The first official classroom, fitted on the second floor in 1918, was where, in Mr. Connell’s proud declaration, the boys had their lessons “every morning from ten to twelve without interruption.”[10]  The book learning Mr. Pond had hoped to eliminate was slowly entering the school but was far from monopolizing the boys’ time.

When Mr. Connell took on Mr. Curtis as the first Head Master of the School in 1918, the academic program changed dramatically.  Los Alamos became not only a ranch school where boys could go to escape the unhealthy life of the cities while living on a ranch, but also a college preparatory school.  Mr. Curtis began hiring other instructors for the new school and chose faculty members for their youth and enthusiasm as well as for their academic credentials.  Wisely, Mr. Connell left these Masters to develop their own academic program that occupied the morning and evening hours.  He also insisted that the boys always spend afternoons and Saturdays outdoors regardless of how threatening the weather or how demanding the need for study. [11]

The first and most important aspect of the program of study at Los Alamos was good health.  One of the brochures published by the school stated, “Los Alamos desires first of all to assure the boy’s good health and normal physical growth, the best foundation for mental and spiritual development.  The School has benefited not only boys lacking robust health and susceptible to the minor illnesses that presage more serious trouble later in life, but also those of apparently perfect health, who have profited from the added strength, stamina and sane recreational outlook gained from life here.”[12]

A part of the physical program at Los Alamos was the division of boys into four groups not based on chronological age but on similar physical capabilities.  These groups were referred to as “patrols.”  The boys would then engage in physical activities with their physical equals within their own patrol who had the same recreational interests.

Another part of the physical program was the boy’s diet.  The meals at the School were planned by a trained dietician and much of the produce was grown in the ranch school’s gardens.  Milk and cream were provided by a dairy on the ranch, and the boys always had a half hour rest period after each meal.  For those needing extra nourishment a midmorning meal was served in addition to the other three regular meals each day.

The final part of the physical program was the climate and extra care provided to the boys.  The climate of the area was determined to be suitable for the boys to sleep on porches, only enclosed by screens and canvas coverings which could be closed during cold weather.  Additionally, complete physical measurements were made of the boys six times each year to ensure that the boys were healthy and growing at normal rates.  There were also physicians who could be summoned from Santa Fe in case of a medical emergency.

The academic program at the School was secondary to the physical program and until Mr. Curtis became Head Master of the School, Mr. Pond and Mr. Connell were content to have only 2 hours per day devoted to academic pursuits.  Under the direction of Mr. Curtis classes began at 7:40 a.m. and continued until 1:15 p.m. with only a 15 minute recess in the middle.  During his time as Head Master of the school, the boys’ academic schedules centered around their needs and interests while providing instruction in such areas as French, Spanish, chemistry, geometry, and English literature.  All of the students were helped to develop a constantly increasing interest in their studies and could alter their schedules to match their capabilities.

The classes met five days each week and the small class size made a high degree of individual attention available to the students.  In the more advanced courses this individual attention was directed to the forming and solving of projects; the last period of each day was devoted to correcting unsatisfactory work or for special assistance.  The scheduled study periods, in addition to the morning classes, were held in the evenings before and after supper.  Students who lacked study skills were given assistance by the master in charge to help them form good study habits.

The academic standards of the school required each student to work to the best of his ability and the students of better than average ability were expected to perform above the minimum requirements for passing a course.  There were six examinations each year and weekly grades were posted in order to show the boys their status in regards to their classes.  Compared to other independent schools of the time, the academic standards of the Los Alamos Ranch School were quite high.

The requirements for a diploma from the school were quite different from modern standards for graduation.  “To receive a diploma from Los Alamos Ranch School the student must have completed a program satisfying the entrance requirements of the college of his choice, including at least: the entire course in English; Mathematics through the course numbered III; one foreign language through III; one course each in History and Natural Science.  The School requires also that the boy shall have shown proficiency in horsemanship and camping, and shall have spent at least two years at Los Alamos.”[13] The college preparation emphasis in the curriculum made students of the ranch school successful in their entrance to college and the school had graduates attending: the University of Arizona, Brown University, California Institute of Technology, Colorado College, Cornell University, Dartmouth, University of Denver, Harvard, University of Michigan, Princeton, United States Military Academy, Williams, and Yale.

The training of the boys at the school was modeled on the training used by the Boy Scouts of America.  The boys were self-managing; however, the school staff helped the boys plan activities.  Responsibilities were given to the boys only as they exhibited readiness to undertake them and if it was determined that a boy was not capable of accomplishing the task and might harm him or others, it was taken from him.  Each boy was encouraged to take responsibility and develop self-reliance.

The training of the boys carried over into responsibilities and discipline.  Privileges were taken from boys who abused them and the honor system was in force to keep the boys in line. The honor system fostered a sense of social responsibility among the boys which was vital to keeping the school operating smoothly.  Since the school was isolated and self-sufficient each boy needed to do his share of the work in order to ensure that the community would be happy and successful.  The advantages of Los Alamos were limited to boys who gave promise of the social qualifications and mental ability to ensure their success and any boy who did not adapt to the standards of the school was dismissed. 

Another aspect of the life at the Los Alamos Ranch School was the work program for boys.  All of the boys were required to do three hours of work each week.  The work assignments, such as care of the tennis courts and school grounds, restoration of the Indian ruins at the school, building trails, or working in the school library, were arranged according to each boy’s strength, ability and interest.

In addition to the regular physical, academic, and work related programs offered at the school, there were also non-conventional campus activities.  Each boy at the school rode one afternoon each week and could ride two additional ones if desired.  On Saturdays during the fall and spring the entire school would go out riding by patrols, each with a master, to some area of interest and for occasional weekend outings the school had Camp May in the mountains and Camp Hamilton near old Indian ruins.  Camp May was typically used for hunting and fishing trips in the spring and fall and also for skiing trips in the winter.  Also each class at the end of the year would demonstrate their equestrian skills through contests in polo, gymkhana, jumping, bareback riding, or saddle equitation.

The school’s winter sports consisted of skiing and hockey while in the spring and fall there was shooting and hunting.  Spring sports consisted mainly of swimming and fishing but there were also other sports.  The main sports program at Los Alamos consisted of touch football, baseball, and hockey and was kept to intramural status to allow the boys to participate for enjoyment rather than for the glory of the school.  The one sport in which the school would compete in tournaments was tennis.

Other activities at the school which rounded out each boy’s education were church services which were held one Sunday evening a month.  Additionally, there was a dramatic society which would present musical and dramatic pieces, including usually one ambitious project such as the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and other shorter pieces such as the Globe Theater versions of Shakespeare’s plays.[14]

Between 1926 and 1928 another building was erected at the Los Alamos Ranch School.  The Edward Fuller Lodge was built as a memorial to Edward Fuller who had been a staff member of the school and whose family had provided indispensable financial backing.  The building was designed by Santa Fe architect, John Gaw Meem.  Eight hundred ponderosa pines were selected by Mr. Meem and Mr. Connell for the building and a saw mill was set up on the site of the building to size the logs.  Some were prepared with mortise and tenon joints while others were cut in half and hollowed out and put back together to carry hidden pipes or conduits.  The logs were placed vertical to give a columnar appearance and the beamed ceiling of the dining room was supported 19 feet above the floor on a group of log trusses.  Over the massive stone fireplace at the south end, hung the mounted head of a New Mexico elk.  The north end of the lodge had a separate sitting room which was used for small group meetings such as the Anglers, the Stamp Collectors, or the Gun Club.  There was also a balcony which ran around two sides of the second floor and led to the apartments of the matron and the dietitian as well as to the infirmary.  On the third floor of the lodge were the apartments of Mr. Connell and the Head Master of the school.

In 1934 the school received a building dedicated to arts and crafts from a generous parent.  The building architecturally blended the native rock, a colorful volcanic tufa, with log and half-timber construction.  Built on three sides of a flagstone court, one wing contained the music room which was used for piano lessons and practice; the other wing was devoted to science with a classroom, a physics laboratory, a chemistry laboratory, and mineral collections; and the main section between the wings was fitted with a carpenter’s shop and wood-working crafts room.  Machines were purposely absent in the carpenter’s shop, as emphasis was placed on the careful use of hand tools by the group who took advantage of this facility.  Scenery for dramatics was painted in an adjoining paint room.        

In the fall of 1940 Los Alamos Ranch School opened with an enrollment of 47 students, its fullest capacity.  This year was probably the zenith of the school: the ranch was complete; Ashley Pond [a pond near Fuller Lodge, used for swimming in summer and making ice in winter] was brimming; and the barren acres between the Trading Post and the Big House had been carefully landscaped.  From the portal of Fuller Lodge one could look over a carefully mowed green lawn and on each side of the lawn transplanted young pines were interspersed with flowering shrubs and fruit trees.  The challenges of pioneering were almost forgotten – though challenges of a different nature were always arising, and an ultimate challenge which would prove to be insurmountable was on its way.[15]

On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt which would change the school forever.[16]  Einstein’s discovery along with news of Fermi and Szilard’s experiments with chain reactions caused concern about creating new weapons based on nuclear power. These [new discoveries] were presented to President Roosevelt by Alexander Sachs and led to the creation of the Manhattan Engineering District which would later take control of the land owned by the school for the purpose of establishing a new research laboratory to develop nuclear weapons.  By 1942 the Manhattan Project had been placed under the command of Gen. Leslie Groves and for security reasons he chose to gather the scientists working on the project into one place.

The following preliminary real estate report was sent to the War Department Office Division Engineer in Dallas, Texas, on November 21, 1942: “The Los Alamos Ranch School was founded in 1917 and has been in continuous operation and growth.  The enrollment is made up chiefly of boys from socially prominent and wealthy families.  Well-staffed by graduates of Yale and Harvard.  Nationally known and advertised.  Accommodations for 44.”[17]  After receiving this report, Gen. Groves, Drs. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ed McMillan, and John H. Dudley went to New Mexico to choose the site for the Manhattan Project.

Jemez Springs was a potential site and was under consideration until Oppenheimer ruled it to be unsuitable because of the lack of available housing.  Next they went to Los Alamos Ranch School which, while not a choice of Gen. Groves, was favored by Oppenheimer. It looked as if the criteria for the site would be continually changed until Los Alamos was the only place which met the criteria for site selection, so Dudley suggested that Gen. Groves “pick Los Alamos and get on with other work.”[18] Shortly after this visit, guards were posted around the perimeter of Los Alamos and the military began what the boys of the school called “the Big Invasion.”[19]

By November 25, 1942 there was a proposal for the acquisition of the school and its facilities for use as a portion of the Los Alamos demolition range.  The proposal included taking 54,000 acres of land, all but approximately 8,900 acres of which were owned by the Government, buying the ranch school with all improvements for $246,600 and the remainder of the land for $193,400.  The proposed method of acquisition for the private properties was to transfer the land in fee simple by purchase or condemnation.[20]  Six days later, on December 1, 1942 Secretary of War Henry Stimson mailed the following letter to A. J. Connell, Director of the School.  “Dear Sir:  You are advised that it has been determined necessary to the interest of the United States in the prosecution of the War that the property of the Los Alamos Ranch School be acquired for military purposes.”[21]  The letter also stated that the Ranch School was required to vacate the property by February 8, 1943.[22]  The school’s response to this letter was to inform the parents of the boys that the school was to be closing and that the faculty would cancel its Christmas vacation in order to provide the boys with full credit for their work and allow the final class to graduate.[23]

The school closed on January 22, 1943.  Following the condemnation notice to Connell, the condemnation proceedings were being carried out on the Ranch School and other private properties on the Pajarito Plateau in the United States District Court for the District of Albuquerque. The case against the Ranch School was Civil Action No. 528 and was filed on January 22, 1943.  This case, called United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. 772.34 Acres of land, more or less situated in Sandoval County, New Mexico; Los Alamos Ranch School, a corporation, Defendant, lasted from January 22, 1943 until December 31, 1943.  The original proposal involved the government paying the Ranch School $275,000 for the property with all improvements in the Declaration of Taking.[24]

The proposed value of the school was contested by Head Master Lawrence S. Hitchcock who stated that the value of the property was $400,000.[25] The government paid the school $275,000 on June 18, 1943.  The school sued for more money and on August 23, 1943 the Ranch School received an additional $60,000 for the property along with $7,884.98 in interest for not having the additional $60,000 at an earlier date.  In his memoirs of the Manhattan Project, Gen. Groves had said that the major problem regarding the takeover of the property was whether its owners would object.  “It was a private school with students from all over the country and, had they chosen to do so, its owners could have made considerable trouble for us, not so much by making us take the condemnation proceedings to court as by causing too many people to talk about what we were doing.  When the initial overtures were made to them, I was most relieved to find that they were anxious to get rid of the school, for they had been experiencing great difficulty in obtaining suitable instructors since America had entered the war, and were happy indeed to sell out to us and close down for the duration – and, as it turned out, forever.”[26]  This final statement proved to be untrue and is discredited by Mr. Connell’s correspondence with Mr. Woodruff.[27]

The Ranch School was awarded $337,884.98 as a result of the condemnation proceedings,[28] but the requested sum of money was originally desired in order to start another Ranch School elsewhere.  The directors of the school did not want to appear to be hampering the war effort and quietly allowed the takeover of the property but did not want to close the school permanently.

The school, under the direction of the former Acting Head Master Fermor S. Church was re-established in Taos in September, 1944.  After the first class of two boys graduated in June, 1945 the school was scheduled to re-open on September 14, 1945.[29]  Enrollment the following year was disappointing and after the fall term of 1945 the school closed its doors for the final time.  After the revealing of the “Los Alamos Secret” parents associated the school’s name with atomic destruction and one parent wrote, “New Mexico is far too dangerous for my boy.”[30]

(c) La Crónica de Nuevo México 39 (August 1994): 2 - 4.  Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission. All rights reserved.


[1] Peggy Pond Church, When Los Alamos Was a Ranch School (1973), p. 9.

[2] Fermor S. Church, correspondence to Tommy (October 17, 1956).

[3] Santa Fe New Mexican, September 25, 1904.  Los Alamos Historical Society Archives, Folder R-22-D.

[4] Fermor S. Church, correspondence to Tommy (October 17, 1956).

[5] Catron & Catron, Attorneys at Law correspondence to Francis C. Wilson, Attorney at Law (December 15, 1916).

[6] Catron & Catron Attorneys at Law, correspondence to Francis C. Wilson, Attorney at Law (December 15, 1916).

[7] Fermor S. Church, correspondence to Tommy (October 17, 1956). 

[8] Los Alamos Ranch School, “Los Alamos Ranch School” (unpublished material) (Los Alamos Ranch School, 1942).

[9] P. Church, p. 14.

[10] Ibid., p. 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Los Alamos Ranch School, “Los Alamos Ranch School” (unpublished material) (Los Alamos Ranch School, 1942).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] P. Church, pp. 18-21.

[16] Albert Einstein correspondence to Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States (August 2, 1939).

[17] Real estate agent, correspondence to War Department Office Division Engineer Lt. Col, Crowley (November 21, 1942).

[18] John H. Dudley, Reminiscences of Los Alamos 1943-1945, ed. by Lawrence Badash et al. (Boston, U. S. A.: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1980), p. 14.

[19] Albert J. Connell, Director of Los Alamos Ranch School, correspondence to Jerome Rich (March 16, 1943).

[20] Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Robins, Assistant Chief of Engineers, correspondence to the Commanding General, Services of Supply (November 25, 2942). 

[21] Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, correspondence to Albert J. Connell, Director of Los Alamos Ranch School (December 1, 1942).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Albert J. Connell, Director of Los Alamos Ranch School, correspondence to Lee M. Woodruff (December 7, 1942).

[24] W. D.. Bryars, Court Clerk, “Civil Action No. 528: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, vs. 772.34 Acres of Land, more or less, situate in Sandoval County, New Mexico; Los Alamos Ranch School, a corporation, Defendant.”  (unpublished material) (United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, June 18, 1943.)

[25] Lawrence S. Hitchcock, Head Master of Los Alamos Ranch School, correspondence to Albert J. Connell, Director of Los Alamos Ranch School (May 13, 1943).

[26]Gen. Leslie M. Groves, Now It Can Be Told (New York: Harper, 1962), pp. 65-67.

[27] Albert J. Connell, Director of Los Alamos Ranch School, correspondence to Lee M Woodruff (December 7, 1942).

[28] W. D. Bryars, Court Clerk, “Civil Action No. 528: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, vs. 772.34 Acres of Land, more or less, situate in Sandoval County, New Mexico; Los Alamos Ranch School, a corporation, Defendant.”  (unpublished material) (United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, August 23, 1943.)

[29] Santa Fe New Mexican, August 11, 1945. Los Alamos Historical Society Archives, Folder R-22-D.

[30] Santa Fe New Mexican,  January 9, 1945, Los Alamos Historical Society Archives, Folder R-22-D.