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Old History, New Stories

on December 1, 2017 - 8:46am
Genevieve Ranger, nurse for the Los Alamos Ranch School, sits on the portal of her infirmary. The building may be older than historians first believed. Courtesy photo

Los Alamos Historical Society

Many years ago, someone at Los Alamos High School penciled on the fore edge of a history book on the teacher’s desk, “In case of flood, grab this. It’s dry.”

Perhaps many of us had the kind of high school history classes in which textbooks spewed forth dates and names for dead people—“Memorize these for the test!”— and listed names of battles that seemed far away. Such textbooks offered no context to illustrate the importance or why all that stuff should be learned.

Yet that’s not really what history is. History is stories of people and how they lived or stories of ideas that drove great movements like the struggle for voting rights or civil rights. When told with understanding and even passion, history is anything but dry! And, amazingly, it seems that something new can always be learned.

Recently, a slew of new historical facts and stories have been coming to the Los Alamos Historical Society.

For years, historians have said the Los Alamos Ranch School Guest Cottage, now home to the Los Alamos History Museum, is the oldest continuously used building in Los Alamos, with its construction dating to 1918. That information was based on financial records from the Ranch School, which included the infirmary (later Guest Cottage) as one of the school’s earliest assets.

However, a new interpretation of a photograph of the Harold Brook homestead, the land where the Ranch School would be built, shows that same building prior to 1918. It’s still the oldest continuously used building on the plateau, but it’s older than we thought—and we’re still trying to track down just how old. Stand by for more information on this one!

Another recent find may answer one of the great mysteries in Los Alamos history: Who was the architect of the Big House, the first Ranch School building to be constructed? This important building held rooms for students and masters, a library, a commons area with a fireplace, and sleeping porches. Historians have looked for decades to discover who designed that remarkable building with its upright log structure. One reason it is so important is because it inspired John Gaw Meem to design iconic Fuller Lodge in a comparable way. Where did that beautiful idea come from?

By chance a few weeks ago, a researcher saw on Wikipedia that the Chicago architectural firm of Pond & Pond had received a commission for the Big House. That makes sense because Allen and Irving Pond, the architects, were cousins of Ashley Pond Jr., founder of the Ranch School. However, researchers have yet to find documentation or evidence of the commission. While a significant amount of information has been uncovered, archivists in Chicago and at the University of Michigan are still helping with the search, and a used copy of Irving Pond’s autobiography is on its way to the Historical Society. Some of the answers are yet to come. Stand by for more information on this one, too!

Finally, in more recent history, we have learned about three explosives accidents that killed seven men at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in the 1950s. Cary Skidmore, a group leader for the Explosives Division at the lab, has spent countless hours for more than a decade to research the accidents themselves and to interview family members. He wants to present more than just facts; he wants to keep pursuing the human side of these tragic stories, to learn safety lessons, to be sure of facts and to ensure that these men and their sacrifices are not forgotten.

You can help, too! Keep looking at estate sales or in your own family photo albums, in collections of boxes in your basement or behind that painting you bought at a garage sale. You may find historic treasures. Interview a grandparent or an aunt who has memories of a time long ago. Do further research on that Wikipedia entry that caught your eye. You never know what historical discovery you might make!