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A popular exhibit at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum (NMFRHM) explores the transformation of the Tularosa Basin during World War II. It is now online.
Visit www.nmfarmandranchmuseum.org to view the online version of “Home on the Range: From Ranches to Rockets.”
In addition to photographs and words, the exhibit also features videos and oral history audio files.
Another new online component to the exhibit will be educational lesson plans for students.
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 (WSMR), 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,” said NMFRHM Curator of History Leah Tookey. “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 unique to 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, finding 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, and 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 world’s first 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, WSMR has been referred to as a huge outdoor laboratory, a place where weapons and civilian projects can be tested,” said Jim Eckles, longtime WSMR public information officer and co-curator of the exhibit with Tookey.
“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 museum’s exhibits staff and curators spent months researching and planning the physical, onsite exhibit, and construction in the galleries was extensive.
The gallery exhibit features everything from replica structures that include a ranch house, tool shed and a military block house, to items as big as a V-2 rocket engine and a Loki Dart rocket, and as small as toys and kitchen utensils. Interactive activities for children include period games and a paper rocket-making station.
Tookey became interested in the subject during a tour of WSMR when she was employed at the New Mexico Museum of Space History (NMMSH) in Alamogordo. When she began working at NMFRHM a few years later, she suggested this story as a future exhibit.
NMFRHM collaborated with WSMR and NMMSH on the exhibit. The project fits with the recent appreciation of space exploration in the Las Cruces region, where space festivals in Las Cruces and El Paso have been organized in the past couple of years, and where nearby Spaceport America is beginning commercial spaceflight.