Whatever Decided Them


Base Camp for Trinity Site was located on the Dave and Ross McDonald Ranch and was ten miles southwest of Ground Zero. Photo courtesy of WSMR. Base Camp for Trinity Site was located on the Dave and Ross McDonald Ranch and was ten miles southwest of Ground Zero. Photo courtesy of WSMR.
By Molly Boyle

THEY CAME TO THE LUSH, vast land east of Las Cruces from places like Texas, Oklahoma, Socorro, and Magdalena in the waning years of the nineteenth century. To them, the Tularosa Basin looked like prime ranching country, sided by the Sacramento Mountains in the east and the San Andres and Oscura ranges to the west. In the wet years of the 1880s, when people trickled into the basin with herds of cattle and sheep, native grasses grew to the height of a horse’s shoulder. It seemed a natural place to begin again, to plant families and gardens, dig wells, and build ranches among the mesquite, grama grass, poppies, and verbena.

A.D. Helms and A.B. Helms branding calves, Oscura, NM, 1952. Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.
A.D. Helms and A.B. Helms branding calves, Oscura, NM, 1952.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

A century later, the ranchers were gone—their adobe and frame houses eroded into ruins by dust, drought, and a government that had decided the land was better suited for testing the twentieth century’s deadliest weapons of war.

Home on the Range: From Ranches to Rockets, an exhibition at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, tells the story of ranch life in the Tularosa Basin—especially the area that eventually became White Sands Missile Range—in the early twentieth century. A hard-fought self-sufficiency allowed ranchers to maintain their homes on the range for more than fifty years. Then, military requisitioning of the land gave life to the defense industry, and with it, a very different kind of range.

Museum curator Leah Tookey says one succinct photograph donated by John Bloom sparked the exhibit she envisioned. Depicting a missile launch at White Sands around 1959, it shows a dilapidated windmill and two low-ceilinged adobe ranch buildings in the foreground of the rocket, which bursts into the sky above billowing dust clouds. The image broadcasts the striking clash between rural life and the advance of modern military technology that punctuates the From Ranches to Rockets story.

The launch of a Redstone rocket on White Sands Missile Range, circa 1959. Photo by Judsen Caruthers, of cial White Sands photographer for 35 years, late 50’s to late 80’s.
The launch of a Redstone rocket on White Sands Missile Range, circa 1959. Photo by Judsen Caruthers, of cial White Sands photographer for 35 years, late 50’s to late 80’s.

Not so lush after all

The late-1800s migrants who settled in the Tularosa Basin soon learned that what looked like a great place to ranch was actually fraught with environmental problems. “As Mother Nature often does, she fooled them,” Tookey says. Homesteaders realized they had come to the grasslands during a rainy period that was soon followed by years of severe drought.

Nevertheless, they persisted, supplementing the lots they purchased by leasing vast acreages of grazing land from the government. In the desert Southwest, the use of these surrounding lands was integral to the survival of livestock, since it took 640 acres of grassland to sustain six or seven cows. The new residents realized early on that though the basin was filled with water that lay just under the soil, that water was laden with minerals and was saltier than the ocean. If ranchers could figure out how to harness a steady supply of potable water, a family could raise a couple hundred white-faced Hereford cows on the leased lands to buy, sell, and provide them with a reasonable living. Ranchers living closer to the surrounding mountains tended goats instead of cattle. In 1897, Natalia DiMatteo’s grandfather José Lucero leased 20,000 acres from the U.S. government in addition to the titled 160 acres of his Circle J.M. Ranch. DiMatteo, born in Las Cruces in 1920, told historians from the Legacy Resource Management Ranching Oral History Project that she imagined her relatives valued the leased land for its grazing potential because “they could actually keep the cattle where they knew they could survive. So I imagine that’s the reason they decided to buy land up there, not knowing that someday the government would come in and take it over.”

“At that time, you know, what else could they do?” DiMatteo says, summing up the limited options for families choosing to settle in the basin. “I have no idea whatever decided them to become cattle ranchers.”

A half-century later, these early transactions between ranchers and the government would set the stage for a different kind of business relationship, after the military began looking for land to use for a bombing test site in the early 1940s.

DiMatteo grew up at the Circle J.M. during times of drought. She recalls her father firing a gun into the air to deter wild horses from drinking the ranch’s water; cows would break into the yard to invade the family’s water tanks during particularly dry seasons. The ranch had a small windmill-powered tank for drinking water with a pipe extending to a larger tank where the children often swam. Another pipe led to corrals that held water troughs for pastured cattle and horses. In addition, two wells (the “old well,” from her grandfather’s tenure, and the “new well,” from her father’s era) were drilled on the ranch property. Her relative Felipe Lucero had it even better: He tapped into the San Nicolas Spring west of his home to bring it down two miles to ranch headquarters, providing enough irrigation for an orchard and garden.

Most ranchers used hand-dug wells with windmills to pump water from the ground. Holm Bursum III, born in 1934, remembers a rainwater cistern at his family’s Ozanne ranch in addition to a 40-foot well. Most wells were situated at a strategic distance between the house and the pasture to allow for convenience in watering the animals.

Home on the range

By 1940, the average ranch was still made up of privately owned lots that were supplemented by much larger parcels leased from the federal or state governments for grazing purposes. Many of the ranch houses were very small, built from adobe bricks, stone, or hand-cut logs and heated by wood fireplaces or stoves. Wood-frame houses, which fared the worst after the transition to the missile range, were insulated by little more than newspaper or cardboard; many succumbed to the ravages of windstorms and fire.

Some residences were grander. The Bursum house in Ozanne was a former stagecoach station on the route from San Antonio, New Mexico, to White Oaks, New Mexico, later used as a ranch headquarters with a fireplace in every room. After the Army took it over, it was repurposed as a hunting lodge and accidentally burned, reduced to a charred ruin.

100 pounds of flour,
100 pounds of pinto beans

When it came to food, ranchers had to factor in two challenges: the distance to the nearest grocery store, at least a day away, as well as a lack of refrigeration in the desert. Dixie Gilliland Tucker was around 15 years old in 1931 or ’32 when her Uncle John “traded the work horse and thirty-five dollars for an old Ford”— before that, she remembers monthly wagon trips to town.

Most families stocked a month’s worth of groceries, using cellars or water cisterns to keep perishables cool. Many wrapped meats in waxed paper, burlap, and an old quilt and stored it in the coolest place in the house—beneath the family bed. In the one-room house constructed at the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum as part of the exhibition, a hunk of meat, wrapped in a blanket, is stored under the bed.

Dorothy Wood Miller wrote in 1992 of an average farm order from the Sears catalog, which her family would pick up in Engle: “The best I remember, the items were 100 lbs. flour, 100 lbs. pinto beans, 48 oz. baking powder, 24 oz. baking soda, 25 lbs. salt, 1 horn cheddar cheese, 10 lbs. elbow macaroni, 1 case tomatoes, and a case of peaches, pears and apples. We got a side of salt pork, one gallon black strap molasses, one gallon Blue Hill peanut butter, 100 lbs. sugar and 100 lbs. of potatoes.” Families also supplemented their meat by raising turkeys, pigs, and chickens. Miller remembers burning thorns off local tuna or coyote cacti for four milking cows to eat, as well as marking billy kid goats with missing testicles for family consumption. Ranchers recall a stable, if monotonous, diet in the early twentieth century comprised of meat, pinto beans, chile, biscuits, and whatever fresh fruits and vegetables the desert-dwellers could grow and preserve.

School group at the Gililland Ranch. Back row— Unknown, Miss Le wich, teacher, Alice Gililland holding Lola Gililland, Emmett Henderson, Andy Henderson, Sam Gililland, Hodges Henderson, and Frank Martin. Front row—Dixie Gililland, Bera Martin, and unknown, 1926-27.
School group at the Gililland Ranch. Back row— Unknown, Miss Le wich, teacher, Alice Gililland holding Lola Gililland, Emmett Henderson, Andy Henderson, Sam Gililland, Hodges Henderson, and Frank Martin. Front row—Dixie Gililland, Bera Martin, and unknown, 1926-27. Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

Anna Lee Gaume, born in 1912, recalls sumptuous break- fasts of steak and biscuits and gravy when cows were newly slaughtered. But in leaner times, families knew how to manage their expectations. Gaume recalls a visiting young nephew who loved her mother’s pumpkin pie. One day, when she told him they were out of pumpkin pie, he quite reasonably requested cold beans instead.

The Wild Man of the San Andres

As is often the case in close-knit, far-flung communities, one neighbor in particular became a regular topic of conversation in the Tularosa Basin: a nameless wanderer called the Wild Man of the San Andres. “During the 1930s, a solitary man roamed the mountains on foot,” writes Home on the Range co-curator Jim Eckles in his book Pocketful of Rockets: History and Stories Behind White Sands Missile Range. “He tried to avoid people but to survive he needed the generosity of the ranch families who often fed him.” No one knew where the Wild Man had come from or why he made the mountains his home, but he was known throughout the basin for his almost visible stench and sooty clothes, which were soiled from his keep-warm method of sleeping on coals. Though the Wild Man usually wandered into an unlocked kitchen and helped himself while the family was out at work on the ranch, Dixie Gilliland Tucker remembers first feeding him in her Grapevine Canyon home in 1934 and seeing him as late as 1952, after her family had left the range. “When he got up to leave, well, he was just like a little quail. He could get out of sight faster than anybody. … If he saw you first, he went and hid in a ditch.” He always refused a bed, but ranchers say he ate enough biscuits and beans in one sitting to fuel him for long stretches of isolation. Residents speculated that the Wild Man ran drugs north and south of the border, but the hospitality extended to him was typical. Tucker says she never quite knew who would show up for dinner, but it was “the rancher’s way” to feed anyone who opened her house’s unlocked door—even when she wasn’t home. “If they wanted to eat, they fixed their meals. The only thing we required was to clean up your dishes.”

General Electric employees posing on the V-2 rocket. GE had the contract to work on the V-2 at the Proving Ground. Photo courtesy of WSMR.

“Toil, tears, and sweat” versus
“a heartless governmental machine”

In Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s first speech to his cabinet in 1940, he told them, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” The same might be said for the White Sands ranchers who began ceding their land to the government in 1942. That year, an executive order established a training range in the middle and west portions of the Tularosa Basin, Mockingbird Gap, the plains west of the Oscura Mountains and the eastern part of the San Andres Mountains. Originally planned for British Royal Air Force bombing crews, runways were built using British plans but then requisitioned for American B-17s, forming what was then known as the Alamogordo Bombing Range.

But before any bombers could fly, the new range had to be completely rid of humans and livestock. Army Corps of Engineers representatives scoured the area, paying visits to ranches and mining shacks with new lease agreements stowed in their brief-cases. The new leases stipulated that owners and all animals were to vacate the lands until the war ended, and that the compensation for doing their patriotic duty would come in annual payments based on the size of their ranch units.

What might have seemed like a fair contribution to the national war effort was, in reality and practice, much more complex and traumatic. “When you examine the details, you see a clash of cultures, one that eventually led to great animosity toward White Sands, the Army and the federal government,” Jim Eckles writes. “On the one hand, you had a rural lifestyle characterized by hard work, independence, a sense of trust, and a love for the land. On the other hand, there was a layered bureaucracy with no one person in charge, where decisions were often driven by budget considerations, and the cogs in the machine expected instantaneous compliance.

… Some people illustrate it as a conflict with human beings on one side and a heartless governmental machine on the other.”

The idea of a temporary paid relocation did not stand up against the indignity of ranchers being forced to leave their land and livelihood. Some were only given two weeks to leave, threatened with forced relocation by Army trucks and soldiers. One elderly rancher, Tom McDonald, armed himself against a moving team that included a military Jeep with a mounted gun, two military police, and a United States marshal. His son ultimately took his pistol and convinced him to leave. “It was hard to believe what we were all going through,” wrote Laura McKinley, his neighbor.

The Army did not provide moving expenses or the cost of relocating livestock, the result being that ranchers were forced to sell their animals in a bottomed-out market. Many took jobs in nearby towns, ostensibly to tide them over until the war’s end. But most of the relocated ranchers later testified that they didn’t receive a single lease payment until long after the war was over. By the late 1940s, it was finally dawning on basin residents to seek more permanent fortunes elsewhere.

Rancher Alyce Lee Cox says, “With the war and all its anguish, there was no reason for the ranchers to be treated in the rude and dictatorial manner by these employees of the government.” Natalia DiMatteo recalls that her father said he did not want to live to see his ranch taken by the government. He died in 1946, one year after the White Sands Missile Range took over his property and four years before the government told DiMatteo’s family to permanently vacate the premises.

Aerial view of Launch Complex 33 with a view of the blockhouse, WAC Corporal launch tower, and the V-2 Gantry.
Aerial view of Launch Complex 33 with a view of the blockhouse, WAC Corporal launch tower, and the V-2 Gantry. Photo courtesy of WSMR.

From ranches to rockets

The ranchers’ fates were sealed, in many ways, after Germany began launching V-2 rockets in England. By the autumn of 1944, it was clear that America needed its own land-rich range to test their own new rockets. One hundred miles long and 40 miles wide, the Alamogordo Bombing Range met the requirements. And just like that, all of a sudden, ranchers were not guaranteed to get their lands back after the war.

Leases to the government for ranch land continued after the war, renewed annually until 1950, when ranchers were cajoled into twenty-year agreements. However, the late 1940s saw an unusual period of co-use arrangements, during which ranchers were allowed to work their land provided they evacuated the range when V-2 rockets were tested.

A 1946 lease stipulated that “no firing period under a given notification will exceed 20 days and that during that period the ranchers are authorized to return every third day for the purpose of watering and feeding their cattle.” But often, ranchers didn’t get the launch memos. Lucero family lore includes a story about a V-2 rocket exploding near the house, shaking the ground and badly frightening the family. Anna Lee Gaume, who says the Trinity test of the atomic bomb took nails out of a window, and that another test rocket went astray and landed on a neighboring ranch, says, “It never would have worked if [the government] had done it any other way ’cause [the ranchers] wouldn’t have stood for it.”

Holm Bursum III told historians in 1994 of his experience on the Adobe Ranch in July 1945 during the Trinity test. Eighteen miles northeast of Trinity Site, he says, “It woke us up, there at the Adobe. … I was sleeping on the top deck of a double decker bunkbed, and it rocked that bed enough that it woke me up. It was real bright but in the wrong direction, ’cause my bed was next to a south window. That was the wrong way for the sun to come up. … It really shook the house.” Bursum recalls that the red Hereford cattle facing the Trinity Site turned white, and that local sheepherders with black beards also saw them turned white, as well as one black cat in particular.

The Atomic Energy Commission purchased two carloads of Bursum livestock and transported them to Knoxville, Tennessee, where, by all accounts, they lived out normal lives and died of natural causes.

Charles H., Fred, and Joe Pete Wood at the Wood Ranch home, 1935.
Charles H., Fred, and Joe Pete Wood at the Wood Ranch home, 1935.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR

Rancher retakes home on the range

During the 1950s and sixties, some ranchers pleaded with the government to be allowed back onto the missile range. They petitioned White Sands, senators, and members of Congress to allow co-use again, arguing that the newly grown grass was a fire hazard and the solution was grazing. Others pointed to the nation’s new dependence on imported beef, asking permission to run cattle in order to contribute to the local food chain. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, however, and co-use activities remained excluded to the former ranching residents of White Sands.

In 1970, eighty-four ranchers lost compensation for the public domain lands that lay within their ranch units. Since many ranches had been largely comprised of public land, the annual fees paid to the ranchers shrank significantly. Their appeals made it to the Supreme Court in 1973, when the ruling on U.S. versus Chester Fuller decreed that ranch units with “enhanced value” due to use in combination with federal grazing permits required “no compensation for any value added to fee lands by the revocable federal permits.”

By 1980, with only thirty-four ranch owners left, most voluntarily sold their acreage or lost suits to the Army Corps of Engineers under the law of eminent domain. But on Oct. 15, 1982, the New York Times breathlessly reported, “An 81-year- old rancher armed with two rifles and an old pistol has set up camp at his former homestead, which sits in the middle of this top-secret missile range.”

“They’re trying to fool people by calling it a desert,” rancher Dave McDonald, son of Tom, who was making one last stand to reclaim his family ranch, told the Times. “Last summer the grass was knee high.”

With his 32-year-old niece Mary, who carried a .30-30 rifle, McDonald’s stand lasted four days. After talks with Senator Pete Domenici, Congressman Joe Skeen, and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, the McDonalds peacefully left the ranch Dave’s family had vacated forty years before. A year later, the government was given the deed to McDonald’s 640 acres. With years of leases combined with a final payment, McDonald and his partner were ultimately paid nearly $450,000.

The Army Corps of Engineers acted legally from 1942 on, winning all major court cases that pertained to the interpretation of the laws that allowed them to seize the ranches and, for the most part, making good on their promises to fairly compensate ranchers. But as Eckles writes, “It was wobbly ethics or morality at best. This is not how any of us want to be treated by the government when there are hard decisions being made.” On the other hand, given the forbidding climate and the difficulty of running cattle on the land, one rancher’s wife says flatly, “God used the Army to move them off the land before they all starved.”

As the adobe structures left on the missile range surrender to the elements year after year, their bricks deteriorating in the harsh desert sun, the homes on the White Sands range belong entirely to the Army now. Their more permanent remnants are in the multiple family memories, records, and photographs of a truly hardscrabble American way of life.

Natalia DiMatteo, who attended school in Las Cruces and spent summers on the Circle J.M., recalls the sheer excitement of one annual rite. Heading to the ranch each June, the family loaded their pickup truck with personal effects, mattresses, and blankets. DiMatteo would scramble atop the whole mound with her brothers and sisters to ride to the Tularosa Basin in the open air.

“Without a doubt,” she says, “we knew we were going to the ranch, and we’d all be so happy.”

Molly Boyle is a writer and editor living in Northern New Mexico. She writes a column on Southwestern literature for the Santa Fe Reporter and reviews restaurants for the Albuquerque Journal.