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DISCOVER OUR SECRETS: Before the bomb

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By Kelly LeVan

Los Alamos has gone down in history as the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and rightly so. However, people have chosen “the Hill” as their home since well before the arrival of Manhattan Project scientists in 1943. In fact, the town’s high mesas have attracted inhabitants for several hundred years.

Pueblo Dwellings

Ruins discovered in Los Alamos’ downtown historic district date back to 1225. However, archaeologists believe the first American Indian tribes arrived on the Pajarito Plateau, the land on which Los Alamos is situated, as early as 1175.

Remains of primitive dwellings, natural caves containing as many as 20 rooms, can be found throughout the county, and members of pueblos near Los Alamos, such as Cochiti, continue to speak Keres, the language these first settlers are thought to have spoken.

Tewa speakers, archaeologists say, began to arrive soon after, in about 1300. Migrating from the Four Corners area northwest of Los Alamos, they began constructing more elaborate living quarters than the Keres speakers, creating upward of 600 rooms in a multiple-story community dwelling and even carving artificial caves in the canyon walls. Visitors to Bandelier National Monument can see evidence of these ancient cliff dwellings.

Unfortunately, the Tewa tribes didn’t stay long. Stories passed down by members of the present-day San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblos, tell of dry, cold weather and raids by neighboring tribes, which likely contributed to their ancestors’ migration toward the Rio Grande.

The Homestead Era

Other rustic structures in Los Alamos tell the story of settlers, primarily Hispanic families who came to Los Alamos in the late 19th century on land grants. The Homesteaders, as they were called, often constructed log cabins on their land, and made their livings through farming, grazing or timbering.

“I know farming is hard work, but the Homestead era seems like an idyllic time,” said Hedy Dunn, museum director of the Los Alamos Historical Society. “It would have been fascinating to see Los Alamos in its pristine state … There certainly would have been more trees.”

She said only a small patch of the historic district’s old-growth Ponderosa forest remains. It’s located in front of Mesa Public Library on Central Avenue.

The Ranch School

Although she said choosing her favorite time period of Los Alamos history was like “trying to pick amongst her children,” Dunn said she found the Homestead era and the Los Alamos Ranch School days especially interesting.

The Ranch School came about in 1917, when a man named Ashley Pond founded a school for boys in Los Alamos. According to records, director A.J. Connell’s firm discipline allowed absolutely no coddling at the boys’ home away from home.

The boys slept outside on the porch of the school’s “Big House,” regardless of the weather. Each student was assigned his own horse, which he would ride over the forested mountains, learning survival skills during this early 20th-century “phys. ed.”

The boys also swam, fished, hunted and played a variety of other sports. They took part in community service projects, too – building trails or improving the tennis courts and other athletic facilities.

Dunn attended a reunion of former Ranch School students in the early 1990s, and she remembers vividly one man, quite advanced in years, running up the stairs at Fuller Lodge, which was built in 1928 as the school expanded and today houses the Historical Society and the Los Alamos Arts Council, and serves a meeting site for myriad local groups.

“He wasn’t even huffing and puffing,” she said. “The school really prepared these students – not just physically, but in every way. It meant a lot to their future development as important people … Many became heads of industry, and they really felt like Los Alamos shaped their lives.”

The school closed with the advent of World War II, and the town’s consequent take-over by the federal government. But during its 25-year stint, it educated more than 600 boys, including such prominent figures as Roy Chapin, president of American Motors Corp., and author Gore Vidal.

The school’s founder continues to be recognized for his role in the town’s history. Residents and visitors often enjoy picnics, festivals and concerts at aptly named Ashley Pond, located across the street from Fuller Lodge.

The Los Alamos Historical Museum, located behind Fuller Lodge, keeps thorough archives of Los Alamos’ diverse past. Its bookshop provides many volumes about the town’s history, especially about the Manhattan Project but also about the Ranch School days, the Homesteaders, and the ancient Tewa and Keres speakers.

Call the museum at 662-4493 or visit www.losalamoshistory.org for more information, including information about upcoming exhibits and special events.

 See more DISCOVER OUR SECRETS stories in the May 14, 2008, print edition of the of the Monitor.