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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Virginia Montoya Archuleta’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Virginia Montoya Archuleta is the youngest daughter of Adolfo and Elaisa Montoya. Her father Adolfo was the head gardener at the Los Alamos Ranch School. In this interview, she describes her father’s work at the school and her memories of living in Los Alamos. She also shares information about her family’s connection to Santa Cruz de la Cañada. Finally, she discusses her family’s role in a lawsuit seeking compensation for homesteaders displaced by the Manhattan Project.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


[Thanks to David Schiferl and Willie Atencio for recording this interview and providing a copy to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

Willie Atencio: This interview is conducted so we can find out about how life was in Los Alamos by people that lived there. Can you tell us how your father was involved with the Los Alamos Ranch School? He has a reputation of being a very good gardener. Can you tell us more about that?

Virginia Montoya Archuleta: Yes. My father did not have any formal education, but he had a library of books on trees. He owned an orchard. He had knowledge of how to grow vegetables, how to keep them throughout the winter, so the Ranch boys had fresh vegetables all through the year.

Atencio: Do you remember when your father first went to work at the Los Alamos Ranch School?

Montoya Archuleta: I was not born yet.

Atencio: Okay.

Montoya Archuleta: I’m sure one of my older siblings was born there. He moved to Colorado, and I know Margaret was born in Colorado. Then he moved back to Los Alamos, and Rubel and I were born in Los Alamos. Now, there’s two or three that I’m not sure if they were born in Los Alamos or in Colorado.

Atencio: Who was your father’s immediate supervisor at the school? Do you remember?

Montoya Archuleta: A. J. Connell.

Atencio: A. J.

Montoya Archuleta: He answered to A. J. Connell. That’s why I know his name, and him, so well.

Atencio: Did your father grow all the vegetables that were used at the school, or most of them?

Montoya Archuleta: Yes. All.

Atencio: All the vegetables.

Montoya Archuleta: Yes.

Atencio: He was involved in storing the vegetables through the winter?

Montoya Archuleta: Yes. He used to dig these deep holes underground, and put the vegetables there. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them, and cover, and they stayed fresh there. He also had a cellar. We had a big, big cellar, and he stored some in there also.

Atencio: Did you get to know all the teachers at the school, or some of the teachers at the school?

Montoya Archuleta: Yes, yes.

Atencio: Do you remember some of the teachers at the school?

Montoya Archuleta: I remember Mr. [Cecil] Wirth, Mr. [Lawrence] Hitchcock. There’s quite a few in here. This book has them all.

Atencio: Okay. Fine. We’ll refer to that book.

Montoya Archuleta: We can refer to that.

Atencio: Okay.

Montoya Archuleta: Mr. [Fermor] Church. One [grand]son, Peter Wirth, is a councilman in  Santa Fe.

Atencio: Oh, yeah. Peter Wirth, yes.

Montoya Archuleta: He’s the son of the Wirths that lived there.

Atencio: Okay. Peter Wirth married the [grand]daughter of the famous architect, John Gaw Meem, in Santa Fe.

Montoya Archuleta: Right.

Atencio: How was it growing up in Los Alamos around the Los Alamos Ranch School? Was it a very peaceful place?

Montoya Archuleta: That was the best place to grow up. It was peaceful. I didn’t realize there could be crime. It was beautiful, because everybody was equal. There was no difference between Indians, Spanish, Anglos, we were all one. I didn’t know what discrimination was. I wasn’t brought up with discrimination at all.

Atencio: Did the Los Alamos Ranch School employ quite a few people from the Pueblo, and in what capacities?

Montoya Archuleta: We didn’t have too many—well, like I say, I really couldn’t tell you who was what. Because to me, everybody was like me. There could have been Indians there, but I wouldn’t have known that they were Indian. They just didn’t show us, “Well, he’s Anglo, or he’s Spanish, or he’s Indian.” We were all, like they say, Americans.

Atencio: Now, what about the students? Did you get to mix a lot with the students? Can you tell us about some of the students that came in from the East?

Montoya Archuleta: We mixed with them for like a Christmas dinner, like a Thanksgiving dinner. The whole Los Alamos ate at the big house. They had their graduation at the end, and we were included in their graduation services.

In fact, there was one student that was bald. He didn’t have hair. My godmother had given me a big doll that didn’t have hair. The boy’s name was Nelson, so my brothers would tease me and call my doll “Nelson.” That was not very nice, but I was the baby so I needed to be teased. But, the boys all treated us like–

Atencio: Most of the boys came from families that had money.

Montoya Archuleta: Yes.

Atencio: But they were very easy to get along with. There were no problems.

Montoya Archuleta: If you ever read this book, Mr. A. J. Connell started it out for boys that had some kind of an illness.

Atencio: Tuberculosis.

Montoya Archuleta: And respiratory problems. Because that was the place to get away from city problems. Then the parents would go visit. They had guest houses, and the parents would stay in these guest houses.

Atencio: Can you tell me how things were there during the winter? Did you ever spend any winters at Los Alamos?

Montoya Archuleta: Yes, a lot of them.

Atencio: Was there a lot of heavy snowfalls in Los Alamos?

Montoya Archuleta: We had so much snow that my father would take us tobogganing. He would have this large toboggan, and pull it with his pickup. We had a ball. Los Alamos had more snow than I have seen anywhere since we moved away from there. Which they don’t have anymore.

They have snow, but not like we did. We had sleds; we had ice skating. We had just about all the entertainment the boys had, with the exception of horseback riding. That we did not do, but they did. They had their horses.

Atencio: Did any of the students do any skiing at Los Alamos during the winter?

Montoya Archuleta: Yes.

Atencio: Okay. How did the homesteaders and the people that lived there – did they socialize with each other a lot? Did they visit each other? There was a lot of visiting and a lot of kinship and a lot of neighborly–

Montoya Archuleta: Well, see, I wasn’t aware of who would you call homesteaders.

Atencio: The people that– 

Montoya Archuleta: Not all of the people that lived there had property.

Atencio: The people that were involved with the Los Alamos Ranch School. How many families supported the Ranch School, or were employed by the Los Alamos Ranch School?

Montoya Archuleta: All of them.

Atencio: All of them. There would be about how many people? You don’t know.

Montoya Archuleta: Not too many, but there was enough to take care of each need for the school. Every vocation that you would need for helping the school.

Atencio: Like all the employees – it was one big, happy family.

Montoya Archuleta: Exactly, exactly. And like I tell you–

Atencio: Did they provide electricity?

Montoya Archuleta: We had electricity. They would provide a hunk of ice every day. We didn’t have electric refrigerators. We had iceboxes.

Atencio: Well, all that was provided by the school. Can you tell me a little bit about education at Los Alamos for the children that were not attending the Los Alamos Ranch School? Who ran the school for the children?

Montoya Archuleta: Our teacher was Mrs. [Edna] Rousseau.

Atencio: Was this run by Sandoval County?

Montoya Archuleta: I have no idea.

Atencio: Okay. Was the teacher for–

Montoya Archuleta: Her husband ran the store, Mr. [Fred] Rousseau, and Mrs. Rousseau was our teacher.

Atencio: Okay. How many students went to the school there, and how many grades?

Montoya Archuleta: Two in our class. I’m not sure about the others, but I don’t think there were that many.

Atencio: There were different classes, more than–

Montoya Archuleta: From first through eighth. Severo [Gonzales], the one you have in that other book, and I were the only two students in my class.

Atencio: In the second grade. So you got a lot of individual attention.

Montoya Archuleta: Well, you can’t say that, because there was only one teacher.

Atencio: One teacher for all eight grades?

Montoya Archuleta: Then she got a helper later on. But, I remember being sat in the front to read when I was—I don’t believe we had kindergarten. I think it was first grade. When the guests would come over, they’d come to visit our school.

I remember being sat in a little chair to read to the guests, because I could speak Spanish and English fluently when I went to school. I give my father a lot of credit, because he knew that education was in both languages.

Atencio: Do you have any questions on the school itself?

David Schiferl: Oh, yes, what did the school look like?

Montoya Archuleta: Our school, or the–

Schiferl: Your school.

Montoya Archuleta: Our school was just a big building, a long building, and then it had like a folding door so that you could separate the classes. Then we had a hall where we would hang our coats. We had the ladies’ restroom here and the boys’ restroom there. That was it. A little lobby in the front where you came in.

Schiferl: On that map, could you show where Ashley Pond is there? 

Atencio: Here is Ashley Pond and here is Fuller Lodge.

Montoya Archuleta: Okay. The school was just about right here, straight from Ashley Pond.

This is Ashley Pond, and this is Fuller Lodge. So, the school was right in between here. Then from Ashley Pond, we lived right around here.

We were the first house as you came into Los Alamos through the only road that was available then. When the government took over, they made a road on the bottom part of Los Alamos. Its entry was here and then they made another road on the other side. But now that’s pretty large compared to when we were there.

Atencio: Whenever the Army started taking over, did they give any notice? Did they give much notice?

Montoya Archuleta: That I would not know. Because like I say, I don’t even remember why my father decided not to stay. I was the youngest and I didn’t have any input.

Atencio: So, after you left grade school at Los Alamos, you went to Loretto [Academy].

Montoya Archuleta: I went to Loretto in the 7th grade.

Atencio: Seventh. And then your brother attended the Los Alamos Ranch School, Rubel.

Montoya Archuleta: Rubel.

Atencio: How many years did he attend the Ranch School?

Montoya Archuleta: Well, he had just gotten a scholarship to the school when the government took over, so he was there for a semester. He had just started ninth grade. He is two years ahead of me. He had just started when the government took over and the school closed.

Atencio: Do you remember the people saying it was very traumatic when the government took over and people had to leave?

Montoya Archuleta: It sure was for us, but I like I say, I don’t remember about as a community. I now realize that if Los Alamos hadn’t taken over, where would we be as far as jobs are concerned, Santa Fe and all the surrounding areas? But, then, we didn’t want to give up that life. That was so beautiful. That was such a great upbringing that we did not want to leave.

My father always wanted us to go to private schools, and Catholic schools. So, I think he thought at that time – well, Loretto and St. Michael’s were boarding schools, but then my sisters moved to Santa Fe also. So, we all lived together in Santa Fe. My dad stayed here in Española and my Mom – he took over his orchard.

Atencio: Now, this book on Santa Cruz de la Cañada shows that there was, there were religious services at Los Alamos. Can you tell us a little bit about–

Montoya Archuleta: Yes. Father Jose Cubelles would go up to Los Alamos. I’m not sure, but I think it was more often than once a month. It could’ve been once a month, I’m not sure on that. But, he used to go, and I’m sure you knew him.

Atencio: Yes, I knew Father Cubelles very well.

Montoya Archuleta: Father Cubelles was funny.

Atencio: Yeah, yeah.

Montoya Archuleta: He could tell jokes and he’d go to our house for breakfast. We had such a good time with him. In fact, he was the one that baptized me. He was a very good friend of our family’s. He and my father were very close. My father would take apples from his orchard to him, to all the priests here in Santa Cruz.

Atencio: So, your father maintained an apple orchard in San Pedro.

Montoya Archuleta: Yes.

Atencio: He also worked at the school, so he was a very busy man.

Montoya Archuleta: Well, he had a family that lived in their house here that took care of the orchard during the time that he was at Los Alamos. When he left Los Alamos, then he took it over.

Atencio: Can you tell me how your father was involved with New Mexico State teaching agriculture techniques to students? I understand your father would bring people to learn techniques of agriculture.

Montoya Archuleta: What I remember is that – remember Paul Trujillo?

Atencio: Yes, yes.

Montoya Archuleta: What was he?

Atencio: A county agent.

Montoya Archuleta: Okay. The county agents would go over to our house and he would teach them or show them how he grafted different kinds of apples on one tree, and his other techniques that made his orchard so outstanding. Because, like I say, he didn’t have formal education, but he educated himself with reading and ordered all kinds of books.

Schiferl: Could we go back to the church in Los Alamos? You told us a little bit more, before we started the formal interview, about where the church was, where the services were. You had a funny little story about going to confession, and the father wasn’t supposed to know who was in there.

Montoya Archuleta: The Mass was given in the school building. They would push that divider so that we could hear. We just had chairs and a little altar, not like a real church. Our confessional was where we hung our coats, in the little hall where we hung our coats. So, really, there was no way that he’d not know, I guess, who we were.

When I would go into confession, he would tell me to let my mother know that he’d be there for breakfast after Mass. He knew he was always invited. There were no really rules or regulations with the father. We could just be ourselves, because everybody was so good up there.

Atencio: Your family had a big say in the building and maintaining of the chapel at San Pedro. This book indicates that Adolfo Montoya and his wife, Elaisa Luján de Montoya, donated land in 1940.

Montoya Archuleta: Correct.

Atencio: Can you tell us a little bit about the chapel at San Pedro?

Montoya Archuleta: That chapel is right next to the property that’s still in the family. Bill Caperton now owns it, because Margaret, my sister who passed away and was married to him, had bought it from my Dad. So, Bill Caperton is the owner of that property now. But it’s right next to where the chapel exists. My Dad gave that property so that the chapel could be built.

Atencio: Do you have any other information you’d like to share with us about your father and the Los Alamos Ranch School?

Montoya Archuleta: My father had a little pet lamb, and this little lamb would follow him everywhere he went. I remember plainly, he would be going with his big wheelbarrow full of vegetables, and this little lamb trotting behind him. Of course, I don’t think my father would allow the little lamb to go in the kitchen with him at the big house, at the kitchen. But that little lamb was with him all the time.

One day, of course – my mother never allowed animals, cats, dogs, any kind of an animal in the house. We had an entry that was just a porch. That day, my father purposefully let the lamb walk into that porch. My mother saw him, and she came at him with a broom and managed to get him out.

Well, after a minute, my mother would stand on the door, that lamb would stand there and he’d go [gestures] at her, because she had been mean to him. That story I’ll never forget, but my dad was so good to animals. He was so good to—he just loved everything. To me, I would always say my dad is next to God.

Atencio: Well, your father had a very good reputation for many good things. That’s why we needed to get more information on your father. Because, people read about Adolfo Montoya in a very general way. But, this–

Schiferl: What other type of animals did he have?

Montoya Archuleta: None.

Schiferl: None, just the lamb?

Montoya Archuleta: Just the lamb. We never had animals here in Española. Well, yes, he used to buy piglets and he used to raise pigs for our own pork. After he gave that up, we never found pork as good as the one he raised. But, he did raise pigs, from little piglets. He would buy babies and raise them up.

Atencio: Did your family have any milk cattle, cows, at Los Alamos?

Montoya Archuleta: No.

Atencio: No.

Montoya Archuleta: On that property that we were paid for, that they homesteaded, I don’t know what went on that property. I know they had to live there, but I wasn’t born.

Schiferl: No chickens or turkeys?

Montoya Archuleta: No.

Atencio: Your father is listed in the faculty and staff as the head gardener. Your father was very, very important there at Los Alamos Ranch School.

Montoya Archuleta: And not only vegetables, but he had rosebushes, flowers, and he took his flowers from Los Alamos to the shows in Santa Fe. He had trophies that he won on all his flowers that he grew at Los Alamos. He had a green thumb. I guess it wore off on me, because they tell me my plants look very healthy.

Atencio: Okay. After the family left Los Alamos, did anybody from the family return to work at Los Alamos?

Montoya Archuleta: Rubel. Rubel worked at the post office for a while, but not very long.

Atencio: Okay. Then your husband worked at Los Alamos.

Montoya Archuleta: Yes.

Atencio: Okay. When did Ruben go work at–

Montoya Archuleta: Ruben went in 1952, and he was there for thirty-four years. He retired after thirty-four years.

Atencio: Okay.

Schiferl: Who did he work with? What kind of work did he do?

Montoya Archuleta: He worked with health research.

Atencio: He worked right next to the hospital, in health research, working with animals. Overall, what are your impressions of the employment Los Alamos has provided for the people of the valley?

Montoya Archuleta: If the government hadn’t taken over, I think a lot of people would have had to move out of Española to find jobs. That I’m grateful for, but I’d still be up there otherwise.

Schiferl: You mentioned when we were just preparing this, that you never wanted a job in Los Alamos. And, so could you–

Montoya Archuleta: The first time I went to Los Alamos after we moved away, which was a few years, it reminded me of an Army camp. It just didn’t seem like a community to me. I don’t know. I never asked for a job, really. I was always offered the jobs I held, so I never had to go apply.

Atencio: Your stay at Los Alamos was very, very memorable. Something that you will forever cherish.

Montoya Archuleta: For as young as I was when I left, I do remember—

Atencio: The beauty.

Montoya Archuleta: –the beauty and the goodness of the people. Of the school personnel, they were wonderful, and so were the boys. My brother, Lucas, was the first to be killed in battle from Los Alamos.

Atencio: When did your family first realize that there would be a lawsuit related to the taking over the land in Los Alamos? You say one of your nephews was a lawyer, was involved.

Montoya Archuleta: No. He is a lawyer, but he was not involved.

Atencio: Oh, okay.

Montoya Archuleta: He just took it upon himself to write on behalf of his mother.

Atencio: Oh, okay. He represented your mother.

Montoya Archuleta: He represented his mother. His mother, who is my sister.

Atencio: Okay.

Montoya Archuleta: I had no idea that my father – to my own personal knowledge. But my oldest sister has documents, she has the deeds for the property. So, she knew. According to her – I’m not sure who started this – but there was a representative from each family that had land there.

They actually met with lawyers long before I was aware of it. That lasted over nine years before the government would do anything about it. I know they contacted our New Mexico representatives, senators. But it took that long to get any help whatsoever.

The reason that my nephew spoke up on behalf of his mother is that he thought it was a steal at $3,000 an acre. When right where we live now, it’s like $85,000 an acre, where we live in San Pedro.

The property may not have been worth that then, but he thought that the owners could be getting what it’s worth now, had the government not taken over. But, like I say, in order for them to have proceeded for more – they figured a lot of it would be involved in the attorneys. Because if it took longer than nine years to go back to that, they may have even come out with less.

Atencio: How long after the lawyers got involved did it take for the government to settle with the homesteaders?

Montoya Archuleta: It was a little over nine years.

Atencio: Nine years total.

Montoya Archuleta: I would say ten or eleven–

Atencio: Nine years total.

Montoya Archuleta: –to settle.

Atencio: To settle, okay.

Schiferl: When was the settlement approximately?

Montoya Archuleta: About three years ago. I have the copies of all the information I got, but time flies. I don’t think it was over three years.

My sister would say – because Lucia has a son that is an attorney also. Two of my sisters have sons that are attorneys, and Michael would tell her, “You can’t beat the government. You can’t beat the government. Don’t waste your time.”

She would say, “I’m doing it in memory of my father.” And she did it.

Atencio: Were people generally happy with the settlement, the way it happened? They were glad they got something.

Montoya Archuleta: I would imagine so, but I– 

Atencio: Most people, most people were happy that it was over with and they were happy the settlement, the lawsuit was over, yeah.

Montoya Archuleta: Exactly. But it should not have taken that long.

Atencio: No.

Montoya Archuleta: I know how everything takes time, but nine years is a little much. I personally believe that our representatives should have been in there fighting for it a lot sooner, and maybe they were. But maybe they couldn’t get the cooperation of the rest.

Copyright 2017 Willie Atencio and David Schiferl. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.