By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
I first heard of John Prather sometime in 1957. We were living outside of La Luz, New Mexico, a village near Alamogordo. My father was working on a guided missile project at Holloman Air Force Base at the time. Prather was a cattle rancher and I followed his story over the next few years with a mixture of boyish awe and admiration.
Prather was born in east Texas in 1873, and moved with his family by covered wagon to New Mexico ten years later. He took up ranching in the 1890s, raising both cattle and mules, supplying the latter to the army during both world wars and acquiring the nickname “Mule King.” By the 1950s, Prather had accumulated 4,000 acres stretching from the foothills and fertile mesas of the Sacramento Mountains into the arid desert of the Tularosa Basin, and held grazing leases from the government on another 20,000 acres. Rough-edged, but gentle, he built his ranch house by hand and grew pecan trees. Prather was one of the last pioneer settlers in New Mexico Territory and looked forward to passing on what he had created to his children. But the government had different ideas.
The Tularosa Basin lies between the San Andres Mountains on the west and the Sacramentos on the east. White Sands runs down the middle of the basin, just south of the prehistoric lava pits known as the Malpais. It is stark, arid, rugged and beautiful. Only a few miles away from the Malpais is the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945. In the years following World War II, the White Sands Proving Ground, as it was then known, was gradually expanded. By the early 1950s, America had embarked on the Cold War and the earnest development of guided missile systems. The proving ground was transformed into the White Sands Missile Range, necessitating even further expansion. The nearby McGregor Missile Range was also expanding and by 1956, hundreds of thousands of additional acres of the Tularosa Basin had been set aside for the development and testing of missile systems.
A number of ranchers were affected by the expansion. Most of them negotiated purchase prices with the government and moved on. A few battled condemnation proceedings and eventually settled. And then there was John Prather. He had no desire to sell under any circumstances and made his views clear. When asked about his plans, he replied, “I am going to die at home.” Although he was unwilling to give up his land, he did offer to lease it to the army for $2.00 per year, so that he “could go on raising beef for the army to eat and paying taxes for them generals’ salaries.” But a sale was out of the question. “If they come after me,” he said, “they better bring a box.”
With negotiations going nowhere, the army began formal condemnation proceedings. The U.S. attorney’s office deposited $341,425.00 as compensation for the Prather ranch and the federal court in Albuquerque issued an order of taking requiring him to move his livestock and vacate his ranch by March 30, 1957. When that deadline passed, federal district judge Waldo Rogers issued a writ of assistance on August 6, 1957. Three U.S. marshals were dispatched the next day to serve the writ. Prather still refused to budge and reportedly said, “I will kill the first man that steps into the door of my house.” The army posted the land and sent armed soldiers to convince him to leave, but by this time the affair had attracted widespread media interest. This was, after all, an 82 year-old man standing firmly against the might of the military. The soldiers were withdrawn.
During the course of the next three years, John Prather became an unwilling folk hero. He received a personal visit from the commander of Fort Bliss. The State of New Mexico intervened. Sen. Clinton Anderson publicly denounced the army’s efforts. Congressional hearings were held on the federal “land grab.” And through it all Prather remained, unfazed and adamant. “I never did take to killing, even of animals,” he said. “I figure each time you kill a thing, you take a little joy out of the world. But a man does what he has to, and if he has to kill to protect his ranch and his home …well, that’s his God-given right.”
In the end, John Prather didn’t move. The army agreed to allow him to remain on his ranch and retain fifteen surrounding acres for as long as he lived. When he died in 1965, at the age of 91, his body was buried next to his ranch house. And true to his word, he never accepted the money set aside for his land.
When the controversy erupted over gun control recently, and I listened to the dire predictions of the NRA and the alarmist condemnations from the right, I thought about John Prather for the first time in many years. Throughout his battle with the army, not a single shot was fired. He didn’t barricade himself and amass stores of ammunition. He didn’t attend armed rallies discussing Second Amendment “remedies.” He didn’t hate his government or the soldiers he confronted. He served them coffee and explained his position in simple and direct language. He prevailed because his humility and integrity commanded respect. He understood what “stand your ground” ought to mean. He won by moral force rather than force of arms.
Following Prather’s death, of course, the army took possession of the remainder of his land. And a year later, deciding that not all of the land was immediately needed, it began leasing portions of the Prather ranch-for cattle grazing.
Sources: C.L. Sonnichsen, “Tularosa, Last of the Frontier West,” (University of New Mexico press, 2002); Calvin A. Roberts, “Our New Mexico: A Twentieth Century History,” (University of New Mexico Press, 2005); Marc Simmons, “New Mexico: An Interpretive History,” (W.W. Norton & Company, 1977); John A. Hamilton, “Blazing Skies: Air Defense Artillery on Fort Bliss, Texas, 1940-2009,”(GPO, 2009).