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The Road to Marfa: A History.

Photo of the Marfa Welcome sign from ‘The Local Palate’.

Early Saturday morning, I’m taking yet another trip that’s been on my bucket list for many years and am heading west to Marfa, Texas.

Marfa’s slogan is, “Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.” Before I take to the road, I’m going to attempt to share all of the reasons why I’m heading to this small town, what I’m going to do there, and what I’m hoping to get out of it, all this week on the blog in a series I’m calling, “The Road to Marfa”. I hope you’ll join me.

Today, I want to talk about how Marfa came to be.

Marfa was established in 1883, and served passesrsby as a water stop and was the freight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway. It has been said that the wife of a railway executive was reading “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyoder Dostoyevsky, and named the town after one of its characters.

Another version of the story claims that the town was named for the character Marfa Strogoff in Jules Verne’s “Michael Strogoff”.

Marfa is at the junction of US Highway 90 and 67 in the northeastern part of Presidio county. To the north are the Davis Mountains, to the southeast the Chisos Mountains, and to the southwest the Chinati Mountains. Marfa lays semi-protected within these escarpments on a great highland plain known as the Marfa Plateau. It sits at an altitude of 4,830 feet above sea level in a semiarid region.

Photo from the ‘Dallas Morning News’.

By 1885 Marfa had one or two saloons, a hotel, and a general merchandise store—Humphris and Company. Poker bets in the saloons were often made with deeds to town lots. Traveling salesmen stayed at the St. George Hotel, who came by train, established their headquarters in the hotel, and from Marfa made stagecoach trips to Shafter, Fort Davis, Valentine, and Presidio to show their wares.

In 1886 Marfa was now home to churches, a school, and a newspaper. C. M. Jennings began publishing the “New Era”, the town’s first weekly newspaper. Over the years, it changed hands several times until the weekly finally merged with the “Big Bend Sentinel” under the management of T. E. Childers.

In 1900 the population of Marfa was 900. Eventually the town had literary clubs, fraternal organizations, telephone service, and a bank.

Marfa’s population reached 3,909 in the 1930s, and in the 1940s, the government housed the Chemical Warfare Brigades, and soon built a prisoner of war camp nearby. Marfa Army Air field was also created near town, and when all of these military camps closed, it hit Marfa economically.

In 2016, Marfa’s population was 1,747.

The Stardust Motel sign in Marfa, Texas.

Until the 1970’s, Marfa was best known for the ghost lights and the film location for James Dean’s final picture the “GIANT”, also starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dennis Hopper. The classically beautiful Hotel Paisano, served as the center of activity during the making of the movie.

In 1971, Donald Judd, the renowned minimalist artist and sculptor, moved to Marfa from New York City with the intention of permanently installing his art. He purchased several acres in Marfa, including the buildings of Fort D. A. Russell, and established galleries for contemporary art.

Before Judd died in 1994, he’d acquired an army base and filled it with art, which is open for tourists.

These beginnings eventually led to Marfa’s growing reputation as an artists’ community, and support for the visual arts has been carried on by the Chinati Foundation and other groups. Various art museums and galleries attract creative spirits as well as tourists and have garnered international attention.

In 2009, The New York Times started publishing several features on Marfa – the art, and the food scene. At the start of 2013, the internet freaked when Beyonce visited Marfa and posted pictures on her social channels. Natalie Portman, Robert Pattenson, and Jake Gyllenhaal have also made the trek to Marfa.

Remember how Marfa claim it’s hard to get to? It’s about 3 hours from El Paso, Texas, near the Texas/Mexico border. It’s about 7.5 hours from Dallas to Marfa, in fact, the nearest city is 170 miles away, and it’s in Mexico.

Talk about remote!

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what there is to actually DO in Marfa.

Sources: Visit Marfa, Texas State Historical Association, NPR

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