An Administrative History
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The Role of Wallace Pratt

Wallace Pratt, the man Roger Toll had described in 1934 as being uninterested in a park in the Guadalupe Mountains, ultimately became the man who brought the decades of hopes for a park to reality. Pratt was a geologist--the first employed by Humble Oil Company. He was one of the new generation of scientists who used their knowledge of the origins of oil and micropaleontology to rationalize oil exploration. A slight and gentle-mannered man, Pratt once called himself a "never prepossessing 115-pound Kansas Yankee." He loved nature, but especially he loved rocks. In later years, when an interviewer questioned Pratt about the origin of the name of McKittrick Canyon, he confessed that because he was "more interested in rocks than men" he merely accepted oral tradition that attributed the name to an Army officer, Felix McKittrick. Until his death in 1981, Pratt spoke and wrote tirelessly and eloquently of the geological history revealed in the canyons and escarpments of the southern Guadalupes, always seeking to imbue some of his love of natural history in his listeners and readers (see Figure 9). [1]

In 1921, Pratt was in the area of Pecos, Texas, investigating oil leases for Humble Oil. One enterprising real estate agent captured Pratt's attention by offering to show him "the most beautiful spot in Texas." After driving the dusty and rough 100-mile round trip from Carlsbad to see McKittrick Canyon, Pratt had to agree with the agent's appraisal of the land. He was fascinated not only by the primitive beauty of the green and watered canyon, but with the geological history exposed in the canyon walls. Pratt knew he could not purchase the property himself, so he shared his find with friends Rupert Ricker and Floyd Dodson. Later in 1921 the three entered into a partnership agreement to purchase eleven sections in McKittrick Canyon that were part of the McComb Ranch. [2]

The partners were surprised in 1925 when J. C. Hunter purchased a section of land adjacent to the western boundary of the McComb Ranch. The surprising aspect of the news was that the section contained much of the land in South McKittrick Canyon that Pratt and his friends thought they owned. Ambiguous surveys caused the confusion. Years later, as he recalled the chagrin of the partners at this turn of events, Pratt pointed out that Hunter had been building up his holdings in the Guadalupe Mountains for some time prior to his purchase of the section in McKittrick Canyon. While Pratt and his friends depended on McCombs' oral description of the boundaries of the property they purchased, Hunter was better informed. He was familiar with the surveys in the land office, and he knew that the State still held title to the section in McKittrick. Pratt believed that when Hunter learned of the purchase of the canyon land by Pratt and his friends and became aware of the scenic value of the canyon, he "simply beat [them] to it." [3]

Wallace Pratt
Figure 9. Wallace Pratt in 1964, speaking to members of the Roswell Geological Society who were on a field trip in McKittrick Canyon. A professional geologist, Pratt loved to tell the geological history revealed in the walls of McKittrick Canyon. He donated his land in McKittrick Canyon to the federal government to be used as a park. (NPS Photo)

Financial reverses in 1929 caused Pratt's partners, Ricker and Dodson, to offer their shares of the property to Pratt. In 1930, with a loan from friend and financier Robert A. Welch, Pratt acquired full title to the partners' portion of the canyon land. During the winter of 1930-31 Pratt commissioned Houston architect John Staub to design a home for his family, to be built at the junction of North and South McKittrick Canyons. [4]

Staub designed a house that would fit the wilderness setting of McKittrick Canyon. The Stone Cabin, as it came to be known, was built entirely of native stone and comprised four rooms: two bedrooms, each with its own bath, a kitchen and a living area. The stone came from a quarry on the McComb ranch. Four men--a civil engineer, a carpenter, a stone mason, and a laborer-- accomplished all phases of construction, including the stone quarrying. Until 1945 this cabin served as the summer home for the Pratt family. [5]

Pratt's scientific approach to oil exploration served him well and allowed him to retire a wealthy man. He rose quickly in Humble Oil, becoming a member of the board of directors and then a vice president. From 1937 until his retirement he lived in New York City and served on the board of directors of Standard Oil of New Jersey, Humble's parent company. By the time he moved to New York, Pratt was thinking of retirement and establishing a permanent residence at the Manzanital Ranch, the name he had given to his property in McKittrick Canyon. He had intended to use the Stone Cabin as a retirement home, but a flood, which trapped the family in the canyon for several days, caused him to rethink his plans. Subsequently, New York architect Newton Bevin designed the home that was built outside the canyon, on a promontory at the base of the mountain. In 1941, Ed Birdsall of Carlsbad, the man Pratt hired as his general contractor, began construction of the house. Work was interrupted, however, by World War II and was not completed until 1945. [6]

The Ship on the Desert, the name the Pratts gave to their retirement home, was a long, single-story, rectangular structure. Centered over the main floor was a much smaller second-story "deck" room. Transverse walls of native rock, tied together by steel beams, formed six rooms on the main floor and the deck room. Other walls were glass or formed by steel studs with stucco and plaster finish on steel lath. The only wood utilized in the entire structure was in the outriggers for the roof overhang. [7]

Wallace and Iris Pratt spent fifteen years in their desert home. They enjoyed the telephone-less isolation of the Ship until the late 1950s when health considerations forced them to make plans to move closer to medical facilities. Though the Pratts had been isolated, the years of their canyon life had not been lonely. During the years that they owned the Manzanital Ranch they often shared their beautiful canyon lands with friends and with scientists who wanted to study the geologic formations and wildlife there. The years and his experiences convinced Pratt of the canyon's appropriateness for a park. However, he also recognized the need for professional management of a fragile resource.

In February 1958, after the idea of a park in McKittrick Canyon had laid dormant for some twenty years, Pratt approached Taylor Hoskins, Superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns, with his offer to donate 7,000 acres in the canyon to the National Park Service. He valued the property and improvements at more than $200,000. [8] In April 1958 a team from the Park Service inspected Pratt's property. Eight months later, on December 19, 1958, Pratt received notification of acceptance of his donation. [9]

The area the Park Service agreed to accept included 5,632 acres, which were deeded to the federal government in three parts. All of the Pratt land was acquired under Section 2 of the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906 (16 USC, Sec. 431). The first donation of 4,942 acres was accepted December 30, 1959. The second donation, a one-third interest Wallace and Iris Pratt held in 690 acres, was accepted on December 28, 1960. The deed to the other two-thirds interest in the 690 acres, which belonged to the Pratt children, sons Houston and Fletcher, and daughter Nancy Jane Tucker, was accepted January 2, 1961. [10]

The property was accepted subject to the oil, gas, and mineral rights of the State of Texas and a lease held by Humble Oil Company on Section 14, Block 65, Township 1 South. [11] The Pratts also reserved their rental and royalty rights to Section 14 for the term of the lease as well as the rentals and royalties that might accrue from oil and gas leases on Section 11, Block 65, Township 1 South, for twenty years following execution of the deed. [12]

In later years, when some people criticized J.C. Hunter, Jr., for making a profit on the sale of his land, Pratt came to his defense. He pointed out that the Pratt family had also benefitted financially from their donation. Although they had donated their property to the federal government, the members of the family had been allowed to deduct the full commercial value of the property from their income taxes. [13]

Pratt's interest in providing the country with a park did not end with his land donation. He immediately began a personal campaign to increase the size of the McKittrick Canyon park. In February 1961, Pratt wrote a purposely provocative letter to Frank Tolbert of the Dallas Morning News to ask for his help. Tolbert, the author of a column popular among Texas nature-lovers, "Tolbert's Texas," had recently devoted one of his articles to McKittrick Canyon. Pratt asked Tolbert's support in seeking "some public-spirited and loyal Texan with sufficient means (or a group of such Texans) to buy . . . the remaining critical area not included in our recent gift, and present it . . . to the National Park Service." [14] The "critical area" to which Pratt referred was an additional 6,000 acres of mountain upland owned by J. C. Hunter, Jr., adjacent to the land Pratt had donated. If that land could be acquired, Pratt, like Roger Toll before him, envisioned the construction of a mountain highway to connect the salt flats west of the Guadalupe Mountains with Carlsbad Caverns. [15]

Pratt was not content with provoking only Tolbert; he also sent a copy of the letter to J.C. Hunter, Jr. Hunter replied quickly and applauded Pratt's letter to Tolbert. He emphasized the fact that a "wealthy benefactor" was of "prime importance" and continued to say that he believed more than 6,000 acres would be required to prevent commercial development so close to the scenic lands. Hunter also pointed out that he could not afford to sell only the scenic portion of his Guadalupe Mountains property, for much of the value of the entire ranch was tied up in the "aesthetic attraction of McKittrick Canyon." Hunter advised Pratt that on January 10, 1961, Leslie Arnberger, Chief, National Park System Planning, from the southwest regional office of the Park Service, had visited his office and made arrangements for regional staff members to survey his Guadalupe Mountain Ranch the week of May 15-20. Hunter invited Pratt to join the investigating party. Hunter responded positively to Pratt's suggestion of a parkway but he had his own ideas about the route it should follow. He preferred to see the road along the ridge-top come off the mountain along the slope of Pine Canyon and return to the U.S. highway in the vicinity of Frijole, which he believed offered a better location for development of park services. [16]

A week later, Pratt accepted Hunter's invitation to join the investigating party and responded positively to his other comments. He sent a copy of his letter to Oscar Carlson, who had become Superintendent at Carlsbad Caverns. Pratt hoped to convey to the Park Service Hunter's interest in selling his ranch for the purpose of establishing a park. [17]

Wallace Pratt continued to participate in the movement to establish a separate national park in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas. He solicited among the circle of personal and professional acquaintances he had established during his career in the oil industry for the much-desired wealthy benefactor who would purchase Hunter's land. Pratt also testified as both interested person and expert geologist during the congressional hearings preceding the creation of Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

After the park was finally established, the Park Service continued to seek Pratt's advice about resource uses and interpretation. Recognizing his valuable knowledge of the geologic history revealed in the mountains and canyons of the southern Guadalupes, the park managers arranged to have Pratt tell on tape the story that he loved so much, about the formation of the Capitan Reef and the Permian Basin. Pratt died in 1981, but visitors to McKittrick Canyon can still hear his voice, telling the story the canyon reveals.


Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001