At the ranch we have an old cowboy, a real cowboy you know, not one of the kind you find in a magazine…he looks like a statue cast to honor the cowboy of yesterday, the only difference is that he is a living one. A student wrote this paean to a staff member while boarding at a ranch school where sons (and later daughters) of wealthy Eastern society sent their children to learn grit and self-reliance, virtues that, between the Civil War and World War II, seemed to be disappearing from the bloodlines.
In this fascinating study of a little-known phenomenon, Melissa Bingmann, assistant professor of history at West Virginia University, presents a picture of the emergence and heyday of the ranch schools, from about 1920 to the 1950s. Upper-class American boys were typically sent to Eastern boarding schools designed to inculcate patrician values. But by the third or fourth generation, the self-reliance that made the grandfather and inspired the father was fading, and boys needed a goad to ambition. This gave rise to the Western schools, providing a sort of educational dude ranch ambience where boys could learn Latin while riding horseback, even bareback, studying in open-air classrooms that had the added benefit of curing asthma and general weakness. Henry John “Jack” Heinz II was sent by his father to Orme School in Arizona, returning ready to run the “57 Varieties” empire founded by his spunky, entrepreneurial granddad. While at Orme, he would sign one letter home, “Y’urn truly.”
Though cowboys were by this time something of a relic, men willing to play cowboy could easily be found, offering examples of manly maturity and personal toughness that would, it was believed, serve the youngsters well as captains of the industries to which they were heirs. Set in desert outposts (one was at Los Alamos), built perhaps of adobe, or of wood imitating a frontier town, the schools offered fresh air and fresh ideas. Students were taught about Indians (though generally never allowed to meet or mix with real native Americans); they gained a hearty respect for ranching, homesteading, and self-sufficiency. The Orme School was run by the familial founders, “Aunt” Minna and “Uncle” Chick: she the all-purpose mother who cheerfully sewed on buttons and nursed the sick, he the jack-of-all-trades who could teach welding as well as Jeffersonian ideals. Though the students enjoyed the simplicity of the settings, they were still the children of privilege, often demanding money from home for saddles and spurs and other accoutrement necessary to act the role of cowpokes.
Some schools catered to girls or became co-ed; girls were as enchanted as boys with the scouting, frontier ethos served up along with Latin declensions. Too, girls who “had reached the difficult age” of social experimentation and the yearning for “high heel shoes,” as one mother aptly put it in 1926, might find healthier role models out West than in the “roaring” East.
Only three of the original ranch schools--Green Fields, Fenster and Orme, all in Arizona--survived to the twenty-first century, catering to a more global clientele and updating their curricula accordingly. The word “ranch” was dropped from the schools’ titles, but they are still proud of their origins. As Bingmann points out, the fact that, for so long, Easterners had willingly invested in the ranch schools as a safe and salutary atmosphere for their children “suggests that the ideal of the mythic West was very much alive in the American mind.”