Old John Prather will be buried tomorrow on the ranch that he refused to surrender to the Army – with the Army’s blessing.
His daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Hart Gaba of El Paso, got permission to bury the pioneer cattleman at a spot he himself selected before his death. It is a few feet from the ranch headquarters house on the Army’s McGregor Missile Range.
Mr. Prather died yesterday – not at his ranch as he had wished but at the home of Mrs. Daisy Speers at Boles Acres, six miles south of Alamogordo, N.M. He was 91 and individualistic to the end, but death came quietly.
In 1957 Old John stood off Ft. Bliss troops, who wanted to evict him, with a rifle.
Today, Maj. Gen. Tom V. Stayton, Ft. Bliss commander, was on record with the statement: “I am very sorry to hear of Mr. Prather’s death. He was a great pioneer of the West. Certainly we have no objection to his burial there. How could we?”
Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Mullins-Hamilton Funeral Home, Alamogordo. The body then will be taken to the ranch southeast of Alamogordo which is now part of McGregor Range.
The Gabas already have fenced off a plot, 25 by 50 feet for the old rancher’s private cemetery. The site is about 80 miles northeast of El Paso on the 40-section ranch that Old John defended with his rifle against Ft. Bliss troops in 1957. He had been ranching there since the turn of the century, and he vowed he would never leave or turn it over to flying missiles, which he called “contraptions” that the Government “brought out here just to try to scare me.”
The Army, wanting his 40 sections for McGregor Range, backed off when Old John threatened to shoot. An uneasy truce and litigation ensued.
Finally the Government sent Old John a check for $106,000 for his ranch. He fired it back. The Government placed the check in an Albuquerque bank and it is still there uncashed.
The Army moved its missiles in. Old John refused to move out. He refused to move his cattle out, “come missiles, hell or high water.”
Sen. Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico got a bill passed in Congress allowing Prather to live out his lifetime on a 15-acre reservation on the ranch. The old rancher continued to graze his herds. “I’ve never moved out a single cow,” he would say. “I’ve been here 53 years,” he said in 1959, “and I’m going to die here.”
But in March of 1963 the rugged old cowman got pneumonia, becoming desperately ill. His daughter, Mrs. Connie Gaba, and Mr. Gaba were living at the ranch house then. “He didn’t want to leave for a hospital,” Mr. Gaba recalled. “He said he wanted to die in front of the fireplace there in the house.”
Mr. Gaba picked him up in his arms and took him to an Alamogordo hospital. The old man was never the same again. He became semi-paralyzed and return to the ranch was out of the question. The Gabas placed him with Mrs. Speers, who provided tender care until his peaceful death at 8 a.m. yesterday. “He just went to sleep after breakfast,” she said.
Death halted plans for a court hearing to act on a plea by Prather’s son, Tom Prather of La Mesa, N.M., that the old rancher be declared incompetent and he himself named guardian. This was opposed by Mrs. Gaba.
Old John left a will naming a neighboring rancher, Don Potter, as executor. It will go to probate and the estate will be divided.
And tomorrow the family united in respect and sorrow, will join with friends and neighbors in a farewell to Old John Prather, who will rest forever on the ranch he loved.