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Ranches & rockets: NM Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum chronicles ranch life

Red Stone Missile launch at White Sands Missile Range, Sierra County, New Mexico. (Courtesy of The Atomic Archives)

With elements beyond a rancher’s control, it can be a difficult life.

The Tularosa Basin is rich with these stories – especially during the 1940s when the military came in to test rockets.

This time is chronicled in “Home on the Range: From Ranches to Rockets,” which is on display at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces.

It runs through January 2021.

“It was a hard life and the ranchers were struggling,” says Leah Tookey, curator of history at the museum. “Then the military comes and sets up a missile range. It was the first to exist, so it had to be designed. Those early pioneers on the range, they had the same characteristics as the ranchers who were moving away.”

Tookey says visitors will learn about ranch life in the Tularosa Basin during the early 20th century, and how events taking place halfway around the world brought about changes that for many ranchers were permanent.

The area eventually became White Sands Missile Range, drawing some of the world’s greatest minds in science and engineering.

“We want people to understand what ranch life out there was like and what happened to those folks,” Tookey says. “At first, it was just the ranching story, but we then decided to get into the military and science part of it. There’s a whole section about the science and research that goes on out there.”

While private land being transitioned into U.S. government property wasn’t uncommon during the 1940s, the story this exhibit tells is uniquely New Mexico because of the scope of research and what was at stake.

The story begins with ranchers from Texas settling in the basin in the late 1800s where they found grass tall and plentiful. What they didn’t know was that they had arrived during a particularly wet climactic period and raising cattle would not be as profitable as they once believed, according to Tookey. The challenging, yet rewarding, lifestyle these ranch families chose changed quickly and dramatically in 1942.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, an executive order established a military training range in the region.

The ranchers were told they needed to immediately move their families and livestock as they would not be allowed back until the end of the war. The families performed their patriotic duties and complied with the orders. Most would never return.

While the basin was used to test rockets, missiles and bombs – including the atomic bomb in 1945 – it was also used to launch America’s space program and other scientific programs, some in the private sector.

“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,” says Jim Eckles, longtime public information officer for the Range, and co-curator of the exhibit with Tookey, in a release.

“If it hadn’t been for the V-2 rockets that were discovered in Germany and brought to New Mexico for research and testing, the land might very well have gone back to the ranchers after the war,” Tookey said.

The idea for the exhibit began years ago for Tookey, though it moved into high gear in 2015, when photographs were dropped off at the museum.

“I began to work with Jim on the exhibit about two years ago,” Tookey says. “I think this is such an important part of history that really isn’t told. It’s a very New Mexico story.”

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