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Snyder: The Manhattan Project And The Los Alamos School In Taos

on November 14, 2019 - 3:57pm

Students and a master enjoy leisure time in the main room of the Sagebrush Inn c. 1945, a room that doesn’t look so very different today. Courtesy photo

The Sagebrush Inn of Taos as it looked in the 1940s. Courtesy photo

Los Alamos Historical Society

The history of the Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS) is well documented. Two books have been written about the school, and the centennial of its founding was celebrated in 2017.

People in our community are reminded of the LARS years when they see the log and stone buildings along Bathtub Row or attend an event in beautiful Fuller Lodge, structures that were created for the ranch school that are now part of our historic district.

Because the school closed at the height of its success, taken over by the Manhattan Project, LARS is still remembered and revered. Despite all of this recognition, few people are aware that the school tried to resurrect itself in Taos.

LARS master Fermor Church was the acting headmaster when the school closed. He and his wife, Peggy, and their youngest son, Hugh, moved to Taos, and the following year Fermor was hired to teach at the Cate School in Carpenteria, Calif. Cate was a good school and is still in existence today, but the expectations for academics, discipline, and maturity for the students fell short of what Fermor had experienced at LARS.

Peggy shared those thoughts in a letter to her oldest son. “I wish I knew of any other school that stood as firmly as Los Alamos for the real decencies of manhood,” she wrote. “I hope you are as grateful for your training there as I am. We were all extraordinarily blessed to have lived so long in such surroundings.” Throughout their year in California, Fermor and Peggy discussed the possibility of restarting the ranch school, and when the year ended, they returned to Taos, determined to make it happen.

In the summer of 1944, Fermor began looking for a place to reopen the school. He found the ideal site in the historic Sagebrush Inn. It was available because few people were traveling during the war years. He set about repurposing the building to suit his needs, and since horses were required for a ranch school, a dozen of the LARS horses that had gone to the Waring School in Pojoaque were purchased.

Fermor, his sons Allen and Hugh, and Manuel Diaz, a former LARS master, saddled up and drove the horses along the high road through Chimayo to Truchas and Peñasco and on to Ranchos de Taos, more than likely the last such drive over the northern extension of the Old Santa Fe Trail. Hugh Church was 12 years old that summer, but he remembered 60 years later the route they took. For him, the excitement of driving the horses marked his first official task as a ranch school student at the new Los Alamos School, something that he had thought the previous year he would never be.

The school enrolled eight students for the year and hired four masters, including Mrs. Ruth Hatcher of Taos, the first woman to teach a full term at the ranch school. Audrey Diaz, wife of Manuel Diaz, became the school nurse, and Mrs. Helen Kentnor, owner of the Sagebrush Inn, served as the school’s matron. It was a slim year, but the activities were bolstered by such people as Taos artist Oscar Berninghaus, who served as the art advisor and took the boys to his studio to observe the artist at work while learning techniques for their own projects. The boys went on Saturday rides in the nearby mountains to learn the outdoor skills that had been the cornerstone of the Los Alamos Ranch School.

Despite the beauty of the Sagebrush Inn and the nearby mountains, the heart of the program was missing—the ideal setting of the Pajarito Plateau, the Valles Caldera, and the Jemez range so close to the campus. At the end of that year, two boys graduated and were given diplomas. Allen Church and former LARS student Christie Luhnow became the only graduates of the Los Alamos School in Taos. Their short ceremony around the fountain in the courtyard was followed by a last summer camping trip. Allen Church remembered that as the campers were riding back from the mountains they encountered a man who told them about the bombs being dropping on Japan and that the war would soon be over.

As it turned out, the attempt to establish a Los Alamos School in Taos was over as well. It was closed by the Manhattan Project just its predecessor had been but for a different reason. Low enrollment was a major factor, but the explanation for the lack of students was explained by a newspaper headline of January 27, 1946: “Parents Shun School Near Atom Bomb Site.” The name Los Alamos no longer carried the same connotation.