In the early 1900s, ranch schools became popular in the Western United States. This was largely due to the example of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose success was attributed to his rough experiences in the West. Arizona led the nation in the number of ranch schools. One of the first ranch schools in Arizona and the first preparatory school in Arizona, was started in 1902 by Henry David Evans, a Cambridge educated Englishman who came to Arizona in 1899.
Evans purchased 160 acres of desert two miles southeast of Mesa and named it El Rancho Bonito. Here he set up a school made of simple tent structures set in the shape of a quadrangle. The classes and meals were held in a main house. There were enough tents to house 20 boys. Behind the living quarters was a long barn for the horses. Each boy had his own horse which he was responsible for. Automobiles were not allowed at the school.
Evans believed, “first that a school with but few rules, and those based on common sense, would teach a boy self-reliance, independence and initiative. Secondly, that life in the West, with its vision, distance and colour, could kindle a boy’s imagination, and leave him that ethereal spark which might at any time burst into flame.” To provide a quality education that would prepare the boys for Harvard and Yale, Evans only hired instructors who had graduated from top universities. They were usually Harvard graduates. The student to teacher ratio was usually around 3:1.
Mornings and evenings were set aside for instruction and study, while afternoons were free for outdoor recreation such as sports and horseback riding. Boys were encouraged to take off on camping, hiking and hunting trips with their horses on the weekends. Younger boys were required to set out with older boys who had some experience. Two or three longer horseback/adventure trips were taken throughout the year with the entire school. These were usually to Roosevelt Lake or the Grand Canyon.
The boys at the school competed in sports with other high schools and colleges in the state. The sports they competed in included baseball, tennis, golf and polo. In 1909, they beat the Tempe Normal School (ASU) in baseball. It was common for the Evans boys to place first or second in state championships. Swimming, skeet shooting, riding and roping were also very popular with the boys at the school. Many boys became skilled at horsemanship and some competed in rodeos. They helped out on cattle drives and learned all other aspects of cattle ranching. With natural resources all around them, they studied archaeology, geology, minerology and botany.
In 1921, Evans moved the school to Tucson leaving the school in Mesa under the direction of Major Lionel F. Brady and A. D. Carlisle. It became known as the Mesa Ranch School until its closure in 1939. During WWII the school became home to Italian prisoners who were brought to Arizona from California to work for the Salt River Water Users’ Association; in fact, my father-in-law grew up nearby and remembers playing kickball with the Italian prisoners. A fire destroyed most of the school buildings in 1943.