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Old-Time Sheep Pioneers:

Fading Treasure Of Americana

By Tim King

The story of the Prather and Porter families in southeastern New Mexico is one of the final chapters in the story of the Old West. The Prathers and Porters ran sheep, cattle, mules, and goats in the high desert on a scale no longer possible in this country.

Irving Porter, now in his 80s, started with Angora goats but in the 1950s and 60s he was running around 1,000 ewes and a hundred head of cattle. His uncle Owen Prather had about 8,000 head of sheep. His uncle John Prather had a large mule and cattle spread.

Pioneer sheepman Irving and Lessie Porter, his wife of over 50 years.
Pioneer sheepman Irving and Lessie Porter, his wife of over 50 years.

“Our ranch was big,” Mr. Porter recalled. “I believe it was 108 sections.”

Owen Prather bought most of the ranch in the 1930s. Homesteaders, who had made legal claim on sections of land (640 acres to the section), were giving them up.

“There’s no way you can make a living on a section of land here,” Porter said “So those people would starve out and have to go get ’em a job—so Owen would buy their property. Very few homesteaders managed to stay on. He normally paid about $10,000 to those people. Owen always laughed and said he was nervous when he was out of debt. If he got out of debt he would get worried and go and borrow some more money and buy another ranch.”

At some point Owen Prather started putting Angora goats on that land. The high desert was covered with pinion pine (piñon), cedar, and other browse, which the goats thrived on. But the elevation was also a problem when raising goats, which Irving Porter calls “a precarious breed of livestock.”

“When I was a boy of thirteen or fourteen years old, my uncle Owen (who raised me) sold me 100 head of angora nanny goats,” Mr. Porter said. “He sold them to me on credit. One morning I had a hundred head and that night I had two. The rest of them had frozen to death. That was my first venture into the livestock business. I never owned any more goats.”

Owen Prather too lost most of his goats during that snow and rainstorm, which occurred on April 11th. However, he kept raising goats through World War II. But Porter, turned to sheep; by the time Irving Porter shipped out towards the battlefields of Europe he had built up a small flock.

“When I went off to war I had 100 head of ewes,” Porter said. “My uncle asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your sheep if you don’t come back?’

“I told him, ‘I’m gonna come back.’

“He said, ‘Well, in case you don’t?’

“I told him, ‘They’re yours if I don’t come back.’

“He said he’d put the money off of those sheep in the bank for me; It was a family thing.

“While I was over there, there was no place to spend money so I sent war bonds home. I put quite a bit of money together that way. When I came home I got married pretty soon and built my sheep up.”

During the war prices for mohair plummeted. Owen Prather had warehouses full of the stuff but couldn’t sell it. But he hung on. Markets can come back.

“After the war things sort of came back to normal and he got a call,” Irving said. “They bought that mohair for 70 cents a pound. We were almost rich. Then the stuff went up to a dollar and something.”

Like any good livestock man, Owen Prather was alert to opportunity.

“These ranchers all ran female goats—they were called nannies,” Porter said. “They didn’t have a market for the male goats. After they were castrated they were called mutton. There was no market for the mutton. My uncle started buying those mutton goats and we ran them strictly for the mohair. He established a market for that.”

But piñon is slow of growth. When it was gone, the ranchers switched to sheep.

Dry-country ranching requires hardy sheep and people: Porter’s ranch at Oro Grande, New Mexico.
Dry-country ranching requires hardy sheep and people: Porter’s ranch at Oro Grande, New Mexico.

A Hard Life, But Rugged Americans Succeeded

“By the mid-40s there was more grass than there was brush and the goat ranching came to an end,” Porter said. “At the time there were small ranchers in the area. The average was around 400 head of sheep. They did okay here. We could fight the varmints pretty well and they could lay a pretty good percentage for a lamb crop.”

The 1950s and ’60s were good to sheep ranchers in southeastern New Mexico.

“It was pretty good in those days,” Porter recalls. “A time or two we got $1.08 to $1.10 per pound. We tried to make our sheep shear ten pounds of wool. We’d get roughly $10 for the wool.

Old times: Putting in a supply of food: Irving, Lessie and daughters Toni and Cindy.
Old times: Putting in a supply of food: Irving, Lessie and daughters Toni and Cindy.

“Then the government put an incentive on the thing. I don’t know what that was about but we got a little incentive. I had a lot of varmints but I could still raise 80 or 90 percent lamb crop and my lambs would normally weigh eighty pounds. We’d get seventy-five to eighty cents. We were getting fifty-five to sixty dollars a head. The sheep business was pretty lucrative then.”

New Mexico’s climate challenges ranchers even in the best of times. The years when the markets were fat were not an exception. Water and drought were continual problems. The few wells that yielded water are over 1,000 feet deep and more dry holes are that deep than wells with water in them.

“Since we are short of water we drove water trucks to those sheep,” Porter said. “The country is rough and we wore out more darn water trucks than you can imagine.”

When times were particularly bad the ranchers would supplement what browse was available with cottonseed cake or meal. Sometimes the stressed ewes would leave their lambs to starve. The Porter family would bring the lambs in and Porter’s daughters would bottle-feed them. They kept some dairy cows and goats for that purpose.

“We fed hay one year when we had lots of sheep,” Porter said. “We had trucks coming in here constantly. Those sheep got so they would come in to that hay and leave their lambs down. We had a lot of death loss. We found that hay didn’t work. One year when it got really bad we took those ewes and lambs and went to the farmland in the Pecos Valley. We leased land down there.”

The Struggle To Survive Slowly Became “Politically Incorrect”…

It wasn’t drought, lack of water, or bad markets that ended the sheep era. It was varmints—and the U.S. Army.

“Varmints” include coyotes, bears, cougars, eagles and even certain Army Generals. Four-legged varmints were fought with poisons and traps. Eagles were challenged from the air. And generals were tried in the court of public opinion.

Porter in Germany during WWII, earning money to build up his sheep operation.
Porter in Germany during WWII, earning money to build up his sheep operation.

“We used to rent an airplane and fly over these lambing pastures and shoot the eagles,” Porter said. “I used a 12 gauge shotgun. We flew a Piper Cub and just dropped that door down, flew up on that thing, and I’d blow him away. We’d start flying in February killing those eagles that were over the lamb pastures. Then they put a stop to it. By the 1960s, if you even frowned at an eagle they’d put you in jail.

“That was one of the first things they took away from us. Then we had what was called 1080 poison. We’d take that 1080 poison and scatter it around there when the predatory lamb kill was great. We pretty well thinned those coyotes that were coming in on us.

“The military has a range out to the west of us. There’s no ranchers there. Those coyotes would build up out there and come in.

“With that 1080 poison we could pretty well keep them down. If they got in here we could work on them with steel traps, snares, and cyanide guns. They took that poison away from us—that was President Nixon that stopped that.

Then we used those cyanide guns. They were fired with a .38 special shell. They are a barrel with a trigger on it that you bury underground. Then a cap screws on there with a shell in it. You put bait on that thing; when a coyote [digs it up and] pulls it, it shoots the cyanide into its mouth. They took that away from us.”

When Feds Tried Taking Land & All; Defiant Ranchers Said No!

The government didn’t merely take the most effective methods of varmint control from the ranchers. They began condemning their land, to use as a military missile firing range. Porter lost the 11 sections of land (7040 acres) his uncle promised him to the U.S. Army. A lot of others lost their land as well.

“They didn’t pay us enough for the land to start over,” Porter said.

Old John Prather wouldn’t give in.

“They sent U.S. Marshalls out there to move him—John was 82 years old—but John wouldn’t go,” Porter said. “The Marshalls went to the nearest phone and told the Army we can’t move that old man, we’re afraid he’ll die en route. So they told them to leave him alone.

“John had a housekeeper who worked there. She had some cattle at another little ranch over west of here, John and this woman—her name was Mary Toy—went over there one day to see about the cattle. And there was a guard on the gate! They told him we have orders and you can’t go in there. John told that guard, I won’t go today but I’ll be here tomorrow at 10 o’clock.

“We didn’t have telephones in those days so John went to town and he called all the television people, the radios, and the newspapers. He told them what was happening. The next morning at 10 o’clock John went over there. Most of his neighbors were there and all of the TV people were there. The army had tanks, machine guns, armored cars, everything to stop one 82-year-old man.

Porter’s family in Otero County, New Mexico made headlines coast to coast, helping uncle John Prather successfully hold off the U.S. Army.
Porter’s family in Otero County, New Mexico made headlines coast to coast, helping uncle John Prather successfully hold off the U.S. Army.

“John got there and the general was there. They argued there awhile and they came to the conclusion that John and Mary could go in there and look after their cattle but he could not go in that house.

“The general went with them and took two bodyguards. When they got to that house John ripped the board off and went in. That general got to saying something and it was a lie. John was a little stout fellow but he grabbed that general and shook him until his teeth rattled. Those bodyguards didn’t know what to do. Mary said she saw those old kids turn their back and smile. They went about their business there and came out and the army took all of their machine guns and rockets and didn’t bother us again.”

The ranchers won the battle but the Army won the war. Although John Prather is buried on his former ranch the Army now lays claim to the land. The government regulations protecting varmints are so bulletproof that they’ve made sheep ranching a thing of the past. And now the blight of development has struck in full force. Town people have begun buying up the old ranches in five-acre ranchettes leaving old ranchers shaking their heads in dismay.

Irving Porter (now the same age as his uncle John Prather was when he faced down the general and his tanks) doesn’t know how to get his hands around the enemy. He still runs a few cattle and dispatches varmints whenever he can. But he doesn’t have hope for the future of ranching.

“I wouldn’t suggest that anybody take it up,” he said. “I’ll leave my ranch to my kids. They can do what they want to with it.”

Special thanks to Mike Gaba of Salt Lake City, Utah for all photos and other help in making this article possible.—Editor

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