- Prep School Cowboys: Ranch Schools in the American West by Melissa Bingmann
An army of Easterners ventured west at the dawn of the last century, searching for authenticity, excitement, escape, regeneration, and a chance to test themselves against a rugged land. The roll call includes Owen Wister, Frederick Remington, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and most importantly Theodore Roosevelt, a leading advocate of the rewards derived from a strenuous life. Following Roosevelt’s lead, hundreds of less famous scions of wealthy Eastern families spent formative time riding, hunting, and camping at private boarding schools in the West. These institutions provided adventure for young boys (mostly), whose parents hoped the experience would also prepare them for productive and independent lives.
Using a wealth of primary sources (archival collections, reports, articles, and oral histories from still-living alumni), Melissa Bingmann reconstructs the history of elite boarding schools founded in the American West in the first decades of the twentieth century. These schools owed their existence to an array of cultural changes and anxieties shaping the nation in the [End Page 525] fin de siècle period: industrialization and urbanization created tremendous wealth, but also alienated Americans from the natural world and the pioneer spirit that Frederick Jackson Turner, among others, suggested was the wellspring of American exceptionalism and ingenuity. The sons and grandsons of ambitious, intelligent, and tenacious self-made men found themselves surrounded by unearned luxury. Howard Heinz, for example, feared his son Jack would become soft and effete and sent him to the Evans School in Arizona to expose him to “the American spirit of individualism, bravery, strength, democracy, hard work, and fortitude” (xiii) necessary to perpetuate his company’s success into a third generation.
Ranch schools, staffed typically with graduates of Ivy League institutions, offered educational opportunities comparable to the “Select Sixteen” boarding schools of the East, but with the additional promise of rugged “environments that would shape their sons into men of character” (xiv). Arizona, thanks in part to its pleasant winter weather, led the nation in ranch schools with dozens scattered across the young state. Schools also were founded in New Mexico, California, and several other western states—curiously, though, apparently not in Texas, despite that state’s proximity to the East and its image as a ranching state.
Bingmann works a variety of perspectives and concepts into what might at first appear to be a narrow study of the insular world of boarding schools, making this work much more useful to scholars. For example, the author includes national debates on education, issues of privilege, social class, and race, questions about authenticity versus the mythology of the West, and the difficult choices ranchers faced in coming to terms with changing market realities. One intriguing comparison she raises, and certainly one worthy of further study, is between boarding schools for elite children and educational institutions for American Indian children. In both, she observes, educators asserted that, “trained professionals could produce better American citizens than could natural parents” (168). One assumes, however, that wealthy, connected, and powerful parents exerted more influence over the curriculum than could American Indian parents.
Her work corroborates other studies of the influence that both the real and imagined West have had on Easterners, such as Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1999), Alan Trachtenberg’s Shades of Hiawatha (Hill and Wang, 2004), and the seminal The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience (Yale University Press, 1968) by G. Edward White. To be sure, Prep School Cowboys does not blaze new trails in its interpretation, but it does augment our understanding of the influence of the West on the nation at the beginning of the American Century and resurrects a forgotten chapter in the history of the region, both commendable achievements. [End Page 526]