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Ranchers vs. the Feds: The McNew Saga
By Adriana Alatorre
Tough as rawhide. A reputation tinged with controversy, mystery and even murder. Cowmen through and through. The Tularosa Basin would not be the same without the McNew family. The McNews are best known in southern New Mexico as one of the ranching families who lost their land and home to the federal government during the expansion of both the White Sands Missile Range and McGregor Range in the 1940s and 1950s. Their story begins in the late 1800s and continues to the present day.
In a recent interview, Bill McNew III, now living outside of Alamogordo, said that his great grandfather was on his way to California when the family hit a mountain wall. The Sacramento Mountains left Eli McNew no choice but to homestead in what is now Cloudcroft, New Mexico. McNew and his family opened up the areas of Mountain Park and High Rolls in the late 1880s.
Image caption: Bill II and Ina McNew are pictured in front of their ranch house at Oro Grande in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Bill McNew III.go to top According to The Basin of Tears, a compilation of stories written by Janie Bell Furman about ranch life in the Tularosa Basin, “Every deed in that area can be traced to Eli McNew.” She wrote that his daughters married men from Texas, whose names are now recognized throughout the canyon region: Tucker, Nelson and Karr. Eli’s son William (Bill) McNew came into the Tularosa Basin area looking for a cowboy’s way of life and found it working with Oliver Lee , who later became a prominent rancher and politician in New Mexico. McNew eventually married into the Lee family, his wife being Nettie Fry, Lee’s niece.
At times, McNew’s association with Lee caused him great trouble. First, McNew and Lee were brought in for questioning on some allegations of cattle rustling. According to C. L. Sonnichsen, the men were tried but found innocent. Unfortunately, McNew would find himself charged with more serious crimes along with Oliver Lee and Jim Gililland for the murder of Colonel Albert Fountain and his son Henry in 1896.
Although McNew was arrested by Pat Garrett and held in jail for several months, the lack of evidence freed him until the trial three years later. Albert Fall, a well-known self-made lawyer and politician in Las Cruces, defended the trio. A verdict of not guilty set free Oliver Lee and his two cowboys, McNew and Gililland. The Fountain case never has been resolved. Although they were free men, the three decided to go their separate ways.
McNew decided to move northwest and graze his cattle at San Marcial on the Rio Grande. Bill McNew III confirmed that his grandfather later moved to the Ancho area as his family grew. The need for water, the backbone of any ranch in the basin, brought McNew and Lee together again.
go to top Oliver Lee controlled the water in the basin, tapping into the Dog Canyon spring and harnessing the waters of the Sacramento River. He pumped the water from the river to the Oro Grande Smelter. The final step was laying 75 miles of pipe that brought water to the rest of the basin flats.
McNew established himself 160 miles south from the Sacramento Valley, near present day Tiberon and was able to buy another 320 acres. He helped build Lee’s water ditches and earned an allowance of water that equaled 20 gallons per minute.When he purchased water rights from Lee, McNew established a ranch near Oro Grande, with the railroad line separating his land from Lee’s. Moving the water tap three miles north, he built a two story home and ranch headquarters, the ruins of which still exist. Ultimately 40 miles of pipeline fed tanks to the west of the land. Because the land’s water was so alkaline that neither man nor beast could drink it, the only way to ranch was to pipe water from the mountains.
Furman writes, “In this manner, the range was built after many decades into a profitable working unit of approximately six hundred square miles with 1,200 head of cattle.” However, life was anything but easy for ranchers, including the McNews. Bill McNew’s two sons, Rob and Bill II, would now become part of the picture.
go to top Rob and Bill McNew II became interested in ranching when the family fell on hard times in 1920. The boys could not assume debt because they were not adults. McNew had to resort to selling his privately owned “fee land” (owned outright) and all other assets the bank could repossess. With the help of a lifelong friend known only as “the Dutchman,” he was able to simply sign over all his assets and land. After two years, the boys, 19 and 22 years of age, were able to assume all debt and responsibility for the ranch.
Since 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act enabled ranchers access to public land. Permits were renewable every ten years provided there was proof of a viable water base on private or fee land. The McNew ranch had only one section of fee land, and the rest was public land. The family believed that if it was possible to coexist with Indians throughout many years, then the government and ranchers could surely do the same.
For almost 20 years, the brothers worked outside their own ranch in order to pay off the debts that had been accumulated. Their father looked after the homestead although he suffered from poor health. By 1941, Rob and Bill II had brought the family out of debt. Living on the ranch were Rob, a widower raising three children, and Bill II and his wife, Ina Work McNew, and their son, Bill III. Then in 1942, they received notice that their land would be utilized on a temporary basis by the government for aerial maneuvers.
Army General Ralph Spiller told the McNews there would be no ground fire, and they were given the possibility of returning someday to pick up where they had left off. The family was given ample time to brand, gather and move their herd off the land used on firing days. The original agreement with the Army was short lived and replaced with an amendment to the Taylor Grazing Act.
It stated that there would be compensation for cancelled permits as well as for any damage to property. Also according to Amendment 315q, compensation was to be paid for “losses suffered by such persons as a result of the use of such lands for war or for national defense purposes.”
Then the family was given an ultimatum to take an offer of three cents an acre or risk having their land condemned. They had already lost hundreds of cows to ground fire that was not supposed to occur. That was the beginning of many promises. In 1942, the family vacated their land with 1,300 head of cattle.
go to top Given only three days to get off or risk death to the rest of their cattle, the family made a frantic dash for the boundary line. Bill III said he could remember the hurt look on his father’s face as they came across more dead cows and .30 caliber shells along the way. A mule-drawn cart heavy with newborn calves accompanied the cowboys, women and children. The remaining cows were corralled in a small temporary pasture used for shipping.
Rob McNew was forced to sell all his cattle. The family entered a voluntary exclusive use agreement with the government. Furman writes, “As in the case of the McNew story, immediate removal of all personal property and livestock took place upon these agreements and the government paid rent fees … according to the number of animals the land could graze.” By 1949, the Army had installed a pipeline that provided water to Camp Oro Grande. The Army offered the McNews $50,000 for improvements on the 218 sections the military controlled.
The McNews rejected the offer. All this time the government had never offered any compensation for the grazing permits, which were an intrinsic part of the ranching unit and the basis on which the value of the property was estimated. Furman says the Army hired an outside party who knew nothing either about real estate or ranching to evaluate the land they had taken and made an offer. The family also produced an estimate that included the ranch’s carrying capacity (the number of cows that can be raised on the land), the essence of any ranch’s value. The government ignored it.
The two brothers and their families divided what was left after the government took their land. Rob McNew decided not to return to the ranch and moved close to Albuquerque. By 1954, Bill II had sold all the cattle he had fought so hard to keep, and he moved to Arizona. Bill III decided to stay and make a go of it until January 2, 1957, when he sold the property to John and Prebble Adkins and moved on as well.
Surprisingly, Bill McNew III and his wife have returned to the Tularosa Basin area. “The wind brought me back,” McNew said. After working construction for 30 years in Arizona and California, Bill III decided to return "home".
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