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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Photos serve as reminder of boundaries' importance

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

In our modern times when eminent domain and development arrogance often dominate the evening news, we received the story and photos of John Prather, a rancher who lived in Otero County, N.M. Prather garnered national attention in the 1950s by taking a heroic stand against the U.S. government's attempt to condemn his ranch in order to add it to the nearby McGregor Missile Range, a part of Fort Bliss, near El Paso.

Although the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean has a huge library about barbed wire, some 6,000 related artifacts and a section dedicated to ranches and brands, we still welcome true stories about the uses and history of these subjects.

The story of John Prather fit our requirements as it told of early-day fence building, the importance of defining our boundaries and protecting our right to own land until death, if need be.

The package contained photos and published documents plus eight livestock brands used by the family, all registered with the New Mexico State Brand Records dating from 1888 to modern times. A special display has been constructed to house and show this information.

Brothers John and Owen Prather traveled from Van Zandt County in Texas to the Prather Ranch in New Mexico in 1883 to begin homesteading. There was no surface water on the vast semi-desert grasslands, so the brothers took work teams and fresnos and began damming up the arroyos and watersheds where possible.

In good years, larger equipment was used to build larger lakes and finally a water well some 1,015 feet deep was drilled. Eventually, John Prather built his ranch to include 27,000 acres grazing approximately 1,000 cows.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Army began acquiring lands for a test missile range in the area. Most adjoining ranchers, including brother Owen, sold out and moved. John, as he had a good rock home, had lived there 50-plus years and had no intention of moving.

Using his barbed wire fences as a defining line - most of the materials used to build these fences he had packed into rough country on his back - John drew a line in the dust with the stock of his .30-30 Winchester rifle then sat back in the shade with his .38 revolver and told the Army to go to hell.

Though 82 years old, partly blind, nearly deaf and wearing his old stained felt hat, John stood his ground. For several years, as documented by published materials, all the military brass, its missiles, the U.S. government and its marshals, the Philadelphia lawyers and the laws of the land were defied by a stubborn man with the determination to protect his property.

In the end, they took all his land but the 15 acres where he lived and where his wife was buried. The law officers removed his cattle to other lands and sent him a check for $106,000, which he promptly sent back unopened. That money was placed in an escrow account in a bank where it was untouched until John died.

John lived to age 91 and was buried in his yard beside his wife with all his family and neighbors attending the funeral. Stories like this are why Americans take such pride in land ownership. It is a unique privilege many in the world don't have.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" June 15, 2010 Column
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.

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