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Standing Strong

John Prather worked hard for his land, and fought even harder to keep it.
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Credit: Mike Gaba

Credit: Mike Gaba

A born cattleman and lifelong rancher, John Prather (1874–1965) didn’t much resemble a revolutionary. Yet by the end of his days, he would not only do battle against the U.S. government—he would win.

Prather’s family arrived in the New Mexico Territory when it was little more than largely uninhabited desert. His father ran some cattle, and as soon as Prather was old enough to pick cotton, he worked and saved for his own herd. He bought two calves off his father when he turned 9 years old, and by 1903, he and his brother Owen had enough cattle to branch out on their own. 

They pushed south to the Otero Mesa, a beautiful but dry region beneath the Sacramento Mountains. They spent years digging trenches and damming creeks with only a two-horse scraper. Then, one very wet year, they dug a well. 

Their hard-fought sweat paid off. By middle age, Prather was the proud owner of 200 sections of what he affectionately called, “the finest damned grass in New Mexico.” He bred horses, raised cattle, and was one of the largest suppliers of mules to the U.S. Army during both World Wars. By all accounts, he earned the right to live out his old age in peace. But his fighting days were far from over.

On July 1, 1956, the federal court condemned 28,000 acres of Prather’s best grasslands for absorption into the Army’s McGregor Missile Range. Prather was offered a handsome sum of more than $100,000 and politely asked to move on. He refused.

Tensions escalated until August 6, 1957, when a district judge ordered Prather’s eviction. The following day, three armed U.S. Marshals met Prather on his way back from tending cows. Caught without his Winchester .30-30, Prather brandished the only weapon at his disposal—a pocket knife. 

It was enough to keep the marshals at bay. The standoff went on for hours, with Prather refusing to go, “come missiles, hell, or high water.” Reporters began arriving in the afternoon, flying in over military roadblocks stationed at all entrances to the ranch. Finally, when Prather proposed an Old West-style shootout, the wearied marshals left empty handed.

Cowed by the publicity and the weathered rancher’s iron will, the court gave in to some degree. Prather was granted the right to remain in his home and the 15 acres surrounding it for the rest of his life. 

Unworried by these restrictions, Prather continued to run cattle over all 28,000 acres of grassland that he still called his own. 

It took a bout of double pneumonia and two strokes to take the stalwart pioneer off his land, and even that didn’t keep him away for long. In 1965, he was buried next to his wife, a few feet from ranch headquarters, where he’s still holding his ground today. 

Credit: Mike Gaba

Credit: Mike Gaba

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