John Prather would have none of it.
In 1957, Prather took on the U.S. military in Southern New Mexico. He and his brother, Owen, were no strangers to the area — they were cattlemen and muleteers with land near the town of Weed since their family homesteaded the area the previous century. Through the years, the Prathers had been supportive of the military, assisting ground efforts with their mules during World Wars I and II.
But that relationship came under strain in the mid-1950s. Between 1954 and 1965, the U.S. Army expanded the McGregor Range and White Sands Missile Range by purchasing ranches in the area. The plan worked fine until the army ran into John Prather.
At first, contact was mundane. The Army offered Prather $341,000 for his ranch. The answer was no.
Prather was born in Texas around 1874. About 10 years later, his family moved west to New Mexico. As a young man, he learned to be a cattleman and started acquiring land. By the mid-1900s, Prather owned about 5,000 acres of Southern New Mexico flatland.
In the aftermath of World War II and the advent of the Cold War, military bases such as White Sands and Fort Bliss started to expand as the arms race with the Soviet Union accelerated. McGregor Range was also expanding, and ranchers were in the way. Some ranchers settled with the U.S. military, while others had their land condemned and left.
Prather remained the exception.
He would look into the air as missiles blasted against the arc of blue sky that is so prevalent in New Mexico. He was unmoved, knowing his place in this world. There was no Space Age technology that could shake his universe.
Once, when asked if he was scared, he replied, “No! I am a mule farmer!” He had long ago earned the title “The Mule King.”
When soldiers and U.S. marshals arrived to tell Prather he needed to vacate his land for use by the Army, Prather stood on his porch and faced them down. He was unarmed, though there was a rifle nearby, leaning against a burlap sack. As the soldiers approached, John told them, “We can settle this by talking. I have some coffee, beans and cornbread in the kitchen. Or we can do it another way.”
He glanced at his rifle. As the story has been told, he said he would kill any man who dared darken his doorway.
Thankfully, coffee, beans and cornbread were consumed in copious amounts that day in 1957 in Southern New Mexico.
Prather made his point, and the media took note of his stand. He also had his share of supporters, including local farmers. New Mexico Sen. Clinton Anderson denounced the army’s efforts, and it finally conceded, allowing Prather to remain on his ranch.
He spent the last years of his life with his daughter in Alamogordo, after he fell ill.
He was 91 when he died, never taking a dime from the U.S. government for his land.
His stand is indicative of the American spirit and one of the crucial histories of the state in the 20th century. It is a story that is very American and very New Mexican, and it would not be the last time New Mexicans would challenge the government and claim land they felt was rightfully theirs.
Exactly 10 years later — far away, and in different circumstances — gunshots and revolution would erupt in Rio Arriba County at Tierra Amarilla.