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Cowboys on the Range --- Missile Range, That Is
By Adriana Alatorre
I’m staying here until hell freezes over. This is good cow country. I sweated a lifetime building this ranch and they ain’t taking a man’s birthright from him,” declared 82-year-old John Prather to reporters in August of 1957.
Over the next 30 years, reporters and the courts listened to the stories of displaced ranchers who stood up to the U.S. government when they were removed from land in the Tularosa Basin to make room for the activities of what would become the White Sands Missile Range . The fight for land became the basis for many a controversy between the ranching community and the federal government.
Image caption: Rancher John Prather talks to reporters in 1957 about his case against the federal government. Courtesy of and used with the permission of the Tularosa Basin Historical Society , Alamogordo.
For much of the late 19th and the first few decades of the 20th century, the only inhabitants of the Tularosa Basin were coyotes, cowboys, ranchers and their cattle and sheep. In the late 1880s, pioneers entered the valley in hopes of conquering the sun-hardened land and beginning a new life in the unsettled frontier. All was relatively peaceful for the ranching community for a long time. Then in the early 1940s during World War II, Washington ordered the military to find locations for testing hi-tech weapons. The military focused on Southern New Mexico. Through federal and state land condemnation suits, 126 Tularosa Basin families were displaced.
The loss of homes and ranch land began in 1941, as in the case of Laura Burris, a story chronicled by the El Paso Times in 1983. Burris and her husband moved to the Tularosa Basin in 1938 where they bought and leased a 66,000 acre spread in Lava Gap from Jim Gililland and received grazing rights from the U. S. General Land Office to herd 450 cattle. The Burrises built up a modest spread with an adobe ranch house, windmills and fences. They sold up to $35,000 worth of livestock a year, which enabled them to pay on their substantial loans.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor when the United States entered World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers informed the Burrises that the government needed their land for the a bombing range. The many attempts that were made to negotiate a co-use land arrangement failed. On February 12, 1942, the family vacated their home of four years. They had to relocate to a leased pasture in Engle, which was across the San Andres Mountains. The couple, their young son, and their 450 cattle made the move to Engle.
The Burrises found themselves homeless since the ranch house in Engle was unfit for an expectant mother and a four-year-old boy. They had to rent a home in Hot Springs, present day Truth or Consequences, falling into debt because the government did not pay the promised lease money at first. The only collateral the Burris family had left were the cattle they brought with them.
The federal government paid them $12,000 in 1943 to lease their property for four years. At the end of that time, the Burrises returned to their land; however, their stay at the ranch lasted only a few months before they were once again forced to leave because of the expansion of the White Sands Missile Range. The land fight became Laura Burris’s when she acquired sole ownership after her divorce in 1947.
In 1950, she married Catron County rancher Ira McKinley. Meanwhile, she continued paying taxes on her land. Since her grazing rights permit had been cancelled in 1942, she had never renewed it because she didn’t have access to the land. Government officials stated that Laura had been fully compensated for her grazing rights and was owed no further payments.
In 1972, the government condemned the remaining 80 acres of deeded land and offered a purchase price of $37 an acre. Laura Burris never signed the deed and continued to pay taxes on her land. The Army discontinued payments in 1982 and never provided Laura Burris any further compensation. Laura estimated in 1982 that the government paid less than $7,000 a year for the acquisition of her land and home.
An appraisal done by New Mexico State University valued the price of the 450 cattle to be $740,000 as of 1982. “What’s bad is they never paid us for the ranch and animals,” she stated to reporter Dave Shepherd. “They just paid rent all those years and let us believe we could move back someday.”
Bill and Rob McNew found themselves in a similar situation. After becoming debt free in the fall of 1941, the McNews lost their ranch to the expansion of both the White Sands Missile Range and then the McGregor Range. The McNews were promised that their land would be used on a temporary basis and were guaranteed that they could return to their ranch in the following six months. The family would endure losing their land and cattle to the government. The entire story of the McNews can be found in this issue of Borderlands.
The missile testing ranges needed land to grow, but the continuous complaints coming from the ranching community began to impede the ability of the military to expand into public lands. The quick solution was another series of condemnation suits, which evicted many families from state and federal land. A group of miners and ranchers protested at a public hearing in Las Cruces on August 2, 1948. The hearing must have gotten the military’s attention because the expansion subsided for another two years.
The peace was short-lived. This time the military’s attention was directed at John Prather. The Prather family came from Texas in 1883, and John, with his brother Owen, established himself south of the Sacramento Mountains. In 50 years, Prather had built a comfortable home and a successful ranch of 4,000 acres of deeded land and 20,000 acres of state and federal land as well. C.L. Sonnichsen describes the events leading up to the final stand off between Prather and the government in his book Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West .
The military’s intent was to incorporate the Prather land into the McGregor Range . The military offered Prather between $100,000 and as much as $200,000 for his eight sections (a section consists of 640 acres). He also would be able to keep his home and 15 acres for as long as he lived. Prather refused, sleeping with two guns close by.
The story continued. The government ordered Prather to vacate his land by August 1, 1957. Prather said, “We fought a hard battle against low cattle markets and droughts and depression and big cow outfits for 50 years. And we don’t know anything else to do but fight.” Prather refused to budge. The government would take another approach.
On August 6, 1957, Alamogordo District Judge Waldo Rogers issued a writ of assistance allowing U.S. Marshall George Beach to evict John Prather. Sonnichsen writes that the following day three armed marshals came up to his ranch and confronted Prather as he returned to his house from working with his cattle on the range. Various sources disagree on whether the famous standoff between Prather and the marshals lasted three hours or three days. Some sources say that the Army sent soldiers and tanks to help the marshals. But all agree that Prather, armed with a knife, dared any of the marshals to lay a hand on him.
Frustrated and embarrassed, the marshals left the land and John Prather behind. In the following hours, Prather and 25 of his kin would gather at the Prather’s homestead in preparation for the return of any unwelcome guests. The defiant Prather was in the national spotlight. In lieu of all the publicity and upon the recommendation of the army, Judge Waldo Rogers issued another writ, exempting John Prather’s home and the 15 acres of land surrounding it.
Prather had won a huge psychological victory. No other rancher had stayed until the end. He demanded that his property be kept on the tax rolls in order to keep the government from condemning his home. When John Prather died in an Albuquerque hospital on February 12, 1965, the government seized his home and land. Edward Abbey’s novel Fire on the Mountain is based on the John Prather story.
In an October 12, 2004, interview by this writer with Rick Shea, the registrar at White Sands Missile Range, Shea said that the post now has a day that commemorates the ranchers on the range. The ranchers receive a rental fee for the land that is used by the military. The ranchers coexist with the bases, vacating any land on firing days. Shea feels that the relationship between the ranchers and the base is very amicable now. But for a few short years, John Prather remained independent and fought for his right to be buried on his land — and he is, under a cottonwood beside his wife, on what is now McGregor Range.