Home on the Range: From Ranches to Rockets

Life in the Tularosa Basin before and after World War II

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Home on the Range

In the early 1900s, much of the arid land east of Las Cruces, including the San Andres and Oscura Mountains, and the Tularosa Basin, was ranching country. Many of these ranchers came from Texas in the late 1800s and found grass tall and plentiful. They soon realized that they had arrived during a particularly wet climatic period, and that raising cattle would not be as profitable as they had once believed . . . but they stayed on.

By 1940, the typical ranch in the area was composed of small pieces of privately owned land supplemented by large parcels of federal and state land which the ranchers leased for grazing purposes. Life on the Range was filled with opportunities, challenges, hardship, and rewards.

Pat Withers at the Robinson place, 1943.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

White Sands Missile Range

The story of the Tularosa Basin and the ranchers who lived here before WWII takes place within the boundaries of the White Sands Missile Range shown on this map.

This map is believed to have been created in the 1970s by WSMR real estate specialist, Jean Simpkins. 

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


To be a successful rancher, you had to be self-sufficient. A rancher needed to be able to repair windmills, build fence, cut lumber, dig water wells, and create water distribution systems. Blacksmithing and mechanical skills were necessary.

Ranchers also needed to protect their livestock from wild animals that lived in the harsh desert and mountain landscapes.

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

The water under the Tularosa Basin is heavily laden with minerals, and usually measures out to be saltier than ocean water. The ranchers who lived in the flats of the basin could not pump water from ground.

The most common tactic of obtaining water for those who lived in the mountains and at higher elevations was to hand dig or drill wells. They used windmills to pump the water out of the ground. Some ranchers were lucky enough to have natural springs that fed the ranch and made it possible to raise cattle. Many ranchers dug and lined pools at the water source to collect as much water as possible for their animals to drink.

Water Witching

Well on the Bursum Ranch, 1937.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

White-faced Herefords on the Pat Withers Ranch, Oscura, New Mexico, 1952.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

Raising Livestock was a Challenge

Most families on the Range raised cattle or goats. Ranchers who owned land on the flats and who had reliable sources of water could raise cattle. The carrying capacity could be as low as 7 or 8 head per section (640 acres) however.

The ranchers, who lived in the mountains surrounding the Tularosa Basin, were more likely to raise goats.

Raising Cattle

What’s for Dinner ?

It was a long way to town to purchase groceries and there was no practical way to refrigerate food. Ranch families dealt with both of these problems by purchasing large quantities of dry and canned goods.

Many families planted orchards and grew their own fruit. They also had gardens and canned the produce that they raised. Meat was easy to come by, but it was hard store large amounts. Families often butchered together and shared the meat. 

Cousins Dale Owen, Freddy Love, and Jerry Love help butcher a steer on the Love/ Owen ranch, 1949.
Photo courtesy of Dale and Sharon Owen.

Homes on the Range

Ranch houses came in all shapes and sizes and were made from a wide variety of materials. Many houses were built of adobe bricks.

Another abundant building material was stone. Because of the lack of trees there were very few log cabins. 

The other common building style used by ranchers was wood framing covered with board and batten.

Tucker Ranch Headquarters.
Photos courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR

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

An Apple a Day...

Distance from the closest community with a doctor was a problem for ranch families when it came to injury and illness. Accidents, snake bites, pregnancy and child birth, and diseases of old age were very common. Ranch folks didn’t get to town very often, so catching communicable diseases like colds and flu were less likely.

Most women made arrangements to go to town to deliver their babies, but on occasion a surprise early birth happened. In this case, the family had to pitch in and get the job done without a doctor or midwife to assist.

One common treatment for many afflictions was coal tar or coal oil. In the early 20th century, it was widely used in veterinary medicine. Many ranchers thought if something was good enough for the livestock, it was good enough for the family and used it for everything from cough medicine to skin rashes.
Museum Collection

And a Good Time Was Had by All!

Entertainment, like everything else, was homemade. Saturday night would find ranch families gathered together with neighbors to enjoy a card game or a dance.

Ranch children, like all children, created their own entertainment. When they weren’t busy tending to livestock, working in the garden, or doing their school work, ranch kids enjoyed riding horses and outdoor games.

Dancing till sunrise, 1939. Miller ranch dance platform.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

School group at the Gililland Ranch. Back row— Unknown, Miss Leftwich, 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.

The three R’s - readin’ ritin’ and 'rithmatic!

Children’s education was another challenge that ranchers faced head on. There were several different options. Some youngsters went to school in nearby communities. In order to get to these schools, they rode a horse, walked, or were delivered by car or bus.

Other families could afford to keep a second home in larger towns. And still other children enrolled in boarding schools like the Loretto Academy in Las Cruces. A few families built their own neighborhood schools.



The U.S. Goes to War

On January 20, 1942, an executive order established a training range for U.S. crews in the Tularosa Basin. Called the Alamogordo Bombing Range, it was just one of dozens scattered across the Southwest.

Army Corps of Engineers representatives visited to survey the ranches and tell the owners they had to move out. They carried lease agreements stating the lands would be needed until the end of the war.

Ranch families performed their patriotic duties and complied with the orders.

Ranchers’ Removal Leads to Resentment

Because the United States was not well prepared for the war, the Army wanted ranchers out as soon as possible. Their methods of removal were often rushed and harsh.

Many of the Range families had spent decades living and working these ranches, through good times and bad. They were proud and self-reliant.

The forced relocation and future actions of the military left them angry and led to years of resentment.

Moving a herd of goats on short notice was difficult for ranchers.
Photo courtesy of Human Systems Research and WSMR.

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.

White Sands Proving Ground

White Sands Proving Ground was created in 1945. Construction began with drilling water wells and construction of barracks, a fire station, hutments, and a missile assembly building. The first official flag-raising ceremony was Sept. 29 at high noon.


The Army Launch Area, now called Launch Complex 33 (LC-33), consisted of a blockhouse to protect men and equipment, several concrete launch pads, a 100-foot tall launch tower for the WAC Corporal rocket, a gantry crane, and a flame bucket.

Built of reinforced concrete, it has 10-feet thick walls and a roof 24-feet thick at its apex. It was designed to withstand the impact of a V-2 rocket falling from space at a speed of 2,000 miles per hour.

LC-33 has been used for thousands of ground-to-ground and air defense missile tests.

The completed blockhouse at LC-33.
Photo courtesy of WSMR.

Raising the plutonium bomb to the top of the tower at Trinity Site.
Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Trinity Site and The Bomb

In 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the formation of the Manhattan Project. The atomic age began on July 16, 1945 at Trinity Site.

Scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, came up with two bomb designs. One used uranium 235 and was relatively simple. It was used to destroy Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. The second design, used 13.5 pounds of plutonium at its core and was a more efficient and sophisticated weapon. It was tested at Trinity Site and was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.

History of the Atom Bomb Video

Why Here?

For the testing of the plutonium bomb, security and secrecy were of the utmost importance. Los Alamos scientists looked at eight different sites and chose the secluded desert of Southern New Mexico, at the north end of the remote Alamogordo Bombing Range.

Although no information on the test was released until after the atomic bomb was used against Japan, people in New Mexico knew something had happened.

Army officials claimed that a munitions storage area had accidentally exploded at the Alamogordo Bombing Range.

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.

WAC Corporal.
Photo courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

The First Rocket

The first rocket launched at White Sands Proving Ground was the WAC Corporal (Without Atitude Control). The Jet Propulsion Laboratory built the WAC Corporal and sent it to White Sands to be tested.

Even with modifications, the rocket was underpowered. Engineers added the Tiny Tim rocket motor as a booster. This motor produced 50,000 pounds of thrust. With a booster the WAC Corporal reached an altitude of 227,040 feet.

The German

Vengeance Weapon​

The German V-2 rocket was the first manmade object to go into space.

The V-2s were 46 feet tall and 5 1/2 feet in diameter. The missile had a range of about 200 miles and fell on its target at 3,500 miles per hour.

More than 3,000 V-2s were launched in Europe during WWII. The missile did not significantly affect the war effort and was considered a failure as a weapon. In the United States, it marked a breakthrough in technology that led to the space race.

Electrical checkout of the V-2 at Cuxhaven, Germany.
Photo by Mitchel R. Sharpe, Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Space History.

V-2 Schematic Design.
Photo courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Space History 

V-2 Mechanics

The V-2 had large fins on the tail section to provide stability and a nose cone where the warhead was normally located. At White Sands, the nose cone was used to house various instruments and experiments.

The V-2 at White Sands Proving Ground

The V-2s paved the way for manned space exploration.

Many scientific experiments were conducted using the V-2. National Geographic Magazine installed a camera on board and took “look-down” photos of the Earth. The photos showed the curvature of the Earth and meteorologists recognized that looking at weather from above the clouds had a great advantage.

Other experiments measured cosmic radiation and the effects of a weightless environment. The Air Force studied Rhesus monkeys during space flight. They discovered that during the stressful parts of the flight, the animal’s heart and respiration rates were within normal range, giving them confidence that humans would someday ride safely in a rocket into space.

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.

V-2 Missile Testing Video

Raising the plutonium bomb to the top of the tower at Trinity Site.
Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory.

History of the Atom Bomb video

Ranchers Lose,

the Country Wins

During the 1950s and 60s, most of the ranchers realized they were not getting their land back and moved on to other endeavors. Beginning in 1970, ranch unit leases no longer included public domain lands, leaving only small privately owned parcels and dramatically reducing annual fees paid to ranchers. 

By 1980, there were only 34 owners who had not settled with the government. Most sold voluntarily. Those who still held out, lost their land to eminent domain. The government deposited the appraised amounts into the ranchers’ bank accounts and the battle for the ranchers at White Sands came to an end.

Outdoor Laboratory

At the end of WWII, the nation was ready for peace but research and development continued on a small scale at WSMR. When the Soviet Union developed its own atomic weapons in the late 1940s, the United States found itself in an arms race. 

The United States accelerated its development and testing programs at White Sands. In addition to weapons tests, significant scientific discoveries and technological advances were made in rockery, aerospace engineering, and technologies needed for space exploration.

“For decades White Sands Missile Range has been referred to as a huge outdoor laboratory, a place where weapons and civilian projects can be tested.”

Jim Eckles

Designed by Wernher von Braun, the Redstone was once the Army’s largest surface-to-surface ballistic missile. It could deliver a nuclear warhead 200 miles away. The Redstone was used by NASA to send Alan Shepard into space in 1961.
Photo courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Our sincere thanks to the following individuals and organizations for their support of this project:

Mark and Kathy Cox

Dale and Sharon Owen

Gerry Veara

Human Systems Research

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Rio Grande Historical Collections NMSU 

White Sands Missile Range Museum 

WSMR Environmental Division

Cultural Resource Program

Special thanks to Jim Eckles, Co-Curator and author of Pocketful of Rockets: History and Stories Behind White Sands Missile Range.

Copies of Jim Eckles’ book are available in the Museum Gift Shop.

New Mexico Farm & Ranch Logo

To see the complete exhibit,

Home on the Range: From Ranches to Rockets, plan a visit to the Museum when we open to the public again. Check our website for re-opening dates.

Department of Cultural Affairs
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