Prep School Cowboys: Ranch Schools in the American West
by Melissa Bingmann, University of New Mexico Press, 230 pages
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.