Prep School Cow­boys: Ranch Schools in the Amer­i­can West

by Melissa Bing­mann, Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 230 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Casey Sanchez West,

Opened in 1917, the Los Alamos Ranch School was a prepara­tory ranch school that ed­u­cated the teenage sons of the na­tion’s elite fam­i­lies. Writ­ers Gore Vi­dal and Wil­liam Bur­roughs and John Crosby, founder of Santa Fe Opera, and Arthur and Robert Wood, lead­ers of Sears, Roebuck & Com­pany, were all once “prep school cow­boys” at the school. Sent by their fam­i­lies to live in North­ern New Mex­ico, the boys rode horses and prac­ticed out­door living skills while study­ing the an­cient Greek and ad­vanced math re­quired by Ivy League en­trance ex­ams.

The Los Alamos Ranch School was one of two dozen schools that opened mainly across the South­west in the in­ter­war years in re­sponse to pre­vail­ing so­cial and med­i­cal the­o­ries that desert skies and dude ranch­ing could re­form the way­ward sons of Amer­i­can wealth. It was the age of Leopold and Loeb, when news­pa­pers sen­sa­tion­al­ized the crimes and an­tics of priv­i­leged teenagers, who were seen as amoral and adrift.

As his­to­rian Melissa Bing­mann writes in Prep School Cow­boys: Ranch Schools in the Amer­i­can wealthy East Coast fam­i­lies saw th­ese ranch schools, mod­eled on stereo­typed no­tions of life in the Old West, as more than board­ing academies. They were moral and phys­i­cal boot camps that could build up their teenage sons’ grit, phys­i­cal strength, lead­er­ship skills, and mas­cu­line know-how. Though the classes were taught by pro­fes­sors and in­struc­tors with Ivy League sheep­skins, the school’s live­stock op­er­a­tions and out­door ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties were largely led by ranch fam­i­lies who, in many cases, leased the grounds to school ad­min­is­tra­tors. In a time of fall­ing live­stock prices and farm con­sol­i­da­tion, th­ese schools of­fered ranch­ing fam­i­lies a way to pre­serve their land and pass on a way of life.

In par­tic­u­lar, many schools touted their all-male en­vi­ron­ment as a place to “make boys into men through im­mer­sion in a hy­per­mas­cu­line en­vi­ron­ment.” Bing­mann quotes a for­mer Los Alamos teacher, who stated that the school’s re­mote lo­ca­tion stemmed in part from “a con­vic­tion that boys be­come men more eas­ily when sep­a­rated from over­so­lic­i­tous moth­ers.” Through­out the 1920s and 1930s, psy­chi­atric and med­i­cal ex­perts wrote screeds de­rid­ing wealthy moth­ers and their do­mes­tic ser­vants for cre­at­ing a fam­ily at­mos­phere that left th­ese moth­ers with an ex­cess of free time in which to smother their sons with over­at­ten­tion.

With the on­set of World War II, most of th­ese schools would close be­cause of de­clin­ing en­roll­ments. The Los Alamos Ranch School was pur­chased by the mil­i­tary to house the Man­hat­tan Project. Shift­ing fads among the wealthy meant that the idea of forg­ing a son’s mas­culin­ity through im­mer­sion in Old West ranch­ing cul­ture came to be seen as quaint and out­dated.

To­day, three of th­ese schools still re­main in Ari­zona — Green Fields, Fen­ster, and Orme. They have been largely rein­vented as pro­gres­sive, co­ed­u­ca­tional board­ing academies that re­cruit stu­dents glob­ally and tout their ties to ur­ban Tucson and Phoenix. And they have long since dropped “ranch” from their name.

Th­ese days, when merely di­vest­ing one­self of a smart­phone for a few weeks is seen as a heroic act of re­bel­lion, it’s harder still to imag­ine that de­vot­ing one’s teen years to be­com­ing a “gen­tle­man cow­boy” was once a youth­ful path­way to lead­er­ship and power in adult life. Bing­mann does a fine job of re­con­struct­ing the elite cul­tural dis­quiet and parental anx­i­eties of the 1920s and ’30s that made th­ese schools, for a mo­ment in time, seem both nat­u­ral and nec­es­sary.

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