Isolated in the remote West Texas wilderness on a flat Chihuahuan desert floor lays a town full of legends. The Chinati, Chisos, and Davis Mountains protectively encircle this obscure hamlet on three sides and bestow upon it their fruitful barren beauty. Art, cultures, history, and the paranormal converge in Marfa, Texas. 

Marfa sits at the junction of US Highway 90 and 67 in the northeastern part of Presidio County. The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway established Marfa, today’s county seat, in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the railroad. Marfa is about a three hour’s drive over the Davis mountains to its nearest urban center, Odessa.

Paranormal Marfa

The Marfa Lights are nothing new. The native Plains Indians knew about the Marfa Lights for centuries. People around the world know about the Marfa Lights. Hundreds of articles, books, video productions, and scientific articles about them have been circulating for years. The Marfa High School Gifted and Talented students even designed the Marfa Lights Viewing Area.

We will not bore you with yet another Marfa Lights edition. Suffice it to say that most Texans know the where of these lights, but not the who, what, and why. No one knows–there are theories and fantasies and myths, but no explanation. Folks need a little mystery in their world. Mysteries metamorphose into muses. Muses inspire art.  

Marfa’s Journey 

The railroads in so many towns in the South and Southwest came into the burden of posterity of naming towns where they built their depots after the Civil War. So with Marfa, it was as well. Railroad executives, their family members, and their employees played a hand in naming the railway stops as the tracks trekked further and further westward. 

By order of the Texas Legislature in the 1880s, railroads controlled the town naming conventions. Before Marfa had a name, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway Company (GHS&A) owned the track right-of-way and thus the naming rights of the communities on the line of tracks they were laying to reach the southern west coast. Once a railroad laid a track in a settlement, it qualified for a U.S. Post Office and could apply for a charter as an official Texas city. 

Who Is Marfa?

The name Marfa is the Russian equivalent of the English name Martha. Characters named Marfa appeared in six novels nine times in the works of the classic Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoyevsky. The legend goes that the wife of a railroad executive knew how to read Russian or knew someone who knew how to read Russian. But we do not know that for sure.

It is assumed that this particular person who named Marfa, Texas, also chose other literary names for Texas towns that were settlements as the railroads laid their westward tracks. We can assume that he or she was educated and revered classic author’s works. But we do not know which of the nine literary Marfas is the namesake of Marfa, Texas.

Which books by Dostoyevsky had been translated into other languages by 1882 or 1883? He died in 1881. Some of the towns named circa 1880 are gone, with maybe a road or a landmark still hanging on to the old name. We know there is still or was a Dickens, Dryden, Emerson, Longfellow, and Tennyson, Texas—all names of classic poets and authors.

Yet, the Texas State Historical Association records, “Another version of the story claims that the town was named for the character Marfa Strogoff in Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar (1876).” No matter what the story is, Marfa is a female Russian name. 

Tex-Mex Marfa

Tulia Berunda Guitierrez (or possibly Contreras) opened the first Tex-Mex Restaurant in Texas in 1887 in Marfa, Texas, which closed in 1985, the Old Borunda Café. It had three cooks, Tulia and two succeeding female relatives of Tulia’s, during its 98 years of operation. The best records that we know of begin in 1938, but several sources, including the University of North Texas’ Portal to Texas History and Texas Monthly, document the 1887 establishment of the Old Borunda Café in Marfa. 

Marfa Began its Journey as a Reference to High Literary Art… And…

The Chautauqua Movement came to Marfa on Monday, April 19, 1926, presenting a series of entertainments like the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, along with broadly defined programs to include the arts. Locals gussied up Marfa with pennants strung on wires above the streets. All tickets sold out before the event. “Circuit” or “Tent Chautauqua” featured music and lectures on various topics.

The Chautauqua Movement was a late 19th and early 20th-century educational and cultural phenomenon in the United States. It was based at Chautauqua Lake in New York. It encompassed a broad range of activities, including lectures, discussions, performances, and religious programs, which were aimed at providing adult education and intellectual stimulation to rural communities.

The very next week, April 26, 1926, The Big Tent Theater, a touring theater with seats for 1,000 people, came to Marfa with the play, The Girl Wins, a four-act society comedy/drama. Tent theater boomed in that era until the movies replaced it and the Vaudeville acts. Producers promoted The Girl Wins as high-class entertainment across rural America.

Because of the Marfa Lights, throughout the years, Marfa postcards prove quite artistic and were popular before the 1970s and Donald Judd. Quite a few vintage Marfa postcards are available today. During WWII, Marfa postcards depicted military themes like the ones from the Marfa Army Airfield.

Sophisticated Military Marfa

Building 98 at Fort D. A. Russell comprised the historic US army base’s bachelor officer quarters, officer’s club, and grand ballroom. Marfa’s military history commenced along with the Mexican Revolution. On January 29, 1911, 100 U.S. Cavalry officers in command of Troops F and H led their horses out of railroad boxcars and set up their tents south of the tracks in Marfa.  

That encampment led to 35 years of a permanent military post until 1946 that eventually became Fort D. A. Russell. The fort bloomed into an international art hub in Marfa much later. One-half million military dollars a year or more flowed into Marfa for 35 years.

The soldier’s first mission was to control arms smuggling from Texas to Mexico. The U.S. did not establish the Border Patrol until 1924. Marfa went on to witness Fort D. A. Russell train overseas regiments and operate a P.O.W. camp for German soldiers during WWII.

Camp Marfa

All this military action led to all kinds of entertainment. The well-traveled and well-educated cavalry officers stationed at Camp Marfa and their wives became an integral part of Marfa society. During Prohibition, locals had no problem smuggling booze from Mexico.

Bachelor officers came and went, but they also served as welcomed escorts for rancher’s daughters and some married. There were dances at the Camp Marfa Officers’ Club attended by Marfa civilians and dances at the Paisano Hotel attended by Camp Marfa officers and their wives. 

Most cavalry bases had polo teams. The polo field at Camp Marfa was in the southeast quadrant of the camp, more or less where Donald Judd’s concrete structures are now. The U.S. Army decommissioned the fort in 1946. German P.O.Ws. combated boredom by organizing chess clubs, concerts, classes, and other activities.

Cultural Marfa Post WWII

In the 1950s, Marfa’s Century Culture Club, a women’s society club, planned to build a museum. But Marfa would not realize a museum plan until 1966 and the Marfa and Presidio County Museum until 1980. For 14 years, Marfa High School history students collected historical accounts of all types and held fundraisers.

Marfa High School history teacher and local historian, Lee Glascock Bennett, founded the Marfa Chapter of The Junior Historians of Texas in 1962. As the students researched local people and history, the shelves in storage spaces stacked up and up and up. The student’s historical hunting expeditions continued until the museum opened.

Marfa and the Movies

The Marfa Drive-In sat west of town on Highway 90, next to the Marfa Cemetery. Theatre Enterprises opened it in May 1953. By the late 1970s, the Marfa Drive-In was still open. Sometime after that, someone or some entity demolished it. Billboard, May 23, 1953: “Theater Enterprises, Inc., has opened three new drive-ins in Texas.

In 1955, James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor descended on Marfa to film Giant, released in 1956. On July 29, 2022, nearly 70 years after Giant released, the Wall Street Journal reported,

“Few films have more fully tapped the medium’s capacity for capturing the sweep of national history than George Stevens’ 1956 classic drama Giant, which chronicles more than two decades in Texas, beginning in the 1920s, a period of social changes, cultural shifts, and the alteration of the land itself. Earlier this summer, Warner Bros. brought out a restored version of the film on 4K UHD blu-ray.”

Hollywood movie makers also filmed The Andromeda Strain (1971), There Will Be Blood (2007), and No Country for Old Men (2007) in Marfa.

Marfa’s KRTS Radio and Lonn Taylor and the Big Bend Sentinel

Lonn Taylor passed away on June 26, 2019. Writer Joe Nick Patoski said in, “Lonn was, clearly and indisputably, the best storyteller Texas had. The power of storytelling came very naturally to him. Lonn’s third wife of 31 years, “Dedie”, served as the longtime editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education of Fort Davis.

Lonn was a fifth generation Texan with academic prowess ranging from Southwestern furniture to Asian culture to vexillology (the study of flags). He began his museum career in Texas and moved to Washington D.C. in 1984 as the historian and director of public programs for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Lonn retired from the Smithsonian in 2002. Dedie and Lonn headed back to where it all began with Lonn’s 14,000 pounds of books in Fort Davis, about 20 miles northeast of Marfa. He published a weekly column, Rambling Boy, full of Texas history, humor, insight, wisdom, and writers beginning in 2003 for the Big Bend Sentinel.

Lonn, a.k.a. the Rambling Boy, began reading his columns on Marfa’s KRTS public radio station and delivered his radio broadcasts in his scratchy tenor drawl. He developed a broader readership because of KRTS. Lonn has left us. His broadcasts are available on streaming services today.  Lonn’s book, Marfa for the Perplexed, is pure Texan.

Jason Steinhauer, bestselling author of History, Disrupted: How Social Media & the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past, reported on his Substack, “Lonn’s weekly column, which I received from January 2014 until June 2019 was consistently the best history writing I read anywhere.”

A New York City Artist’s Gentrification of Marfa

By now, you can see that Marfa always loved art and culture, way before Donald Judd. If this short history of Marfa has kept you with us thus far, this is where Marfa drastically changed from a close-to-the-border, tiny, desert ranching town into a multi-million dollar, high falutin’, international, art hub. If you Google Marfa, Texas, you see a lot of references involving quirky art and Donald Judd.

Donald Judd, associated with the minimalist art movement, changed the face of Marfa, Texas, forever. Born on June 3, 1928 in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, Don served in Korea in the U.S. Army, studied philosophy and art history at Columbia University and painting at the Art Students League, worked as an art critic, was a painter until the early 1960s, and a prolific reader and writer.

Donald Judd and the Land

Don wrote comprehensively on the importance of land preservation, empirical knowledge, and engaged citizenship. Then he became obsessed with the permanent installation of artwork. According to the Judd Foundation, located in NYC and Marfa, “He wanted his art displayed in what he considered “clean” settings: unmediated by titles or artist’s statements or curators’ notes.”

Don’s permanent installation obsession led him to seek that clean setting, and he found it, by chance, in Marfa in 1971, after dismissing Baja California and New Mexico. He began eyeing property there in 1973. In fact, he found an art foundation to buy Fort D. A. Russell with 16 decrepit buildings, plus three ranches. He set about revamping Marfa, backed by the fortune of Houston’s John and Dominique de Menil.

John and Dominique are the parents of Philippa de Menil Pellizzi Friedrich who married Heiner Friedrich. Philippa and Heiner created the Dia Art Foundation, which spent $30 million in its first ten years acquiring esoteric and advanced art. In 1984, Don felt that the de Menils were going to break up with him. The Dia Art Foundation could and would create instant Michelangelos or send artists into obscurity.

The War of Art

By that time, Don’s famous (or infamous) 15, giant, bleached, empty, see-through, rectangular, concrete boxes had been installed along the border of today’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Dia purchased Fort D. A. Russell, three ranches, and the 24,000-square-foot Wool and Mohair Building so Don had enough room for the massive art works he visualized.

There were wars between Dia and Don about space and what to buy. There were lawyers and negotiations and threats and yelling. Eventually, Dia set Judd’s compensation at $16,000 a month through 1982 and $17,500 a month through 1984. Dia was dependent on oil prices, and Dia was going broke by mid-1982. By 1987, Don was done with Dia.

With sheer fortitude and tenacity, Don founded the Chinati Foundation/La Fundación Chinati in 1986 specifically for the permanent installation of large-scale works by himself and other artists. Don held on to his empire. Marfa is a Mecca for minimalist art, art galleries, art studios, culture, history museums, shops, restaurants, and the world’s most unique publishing company, the Marfa Book Co.

Eclectic and High-End Marfa

In today’s Marfa, you can buy $400 dresses, $12 hand-crafted soaps, $4 coffees, and dine for $125 per plate. Airbnbs and Vrbos dominate the rental market in Marfa now. The Marfa Chamber of Commerce began lobbying the City Council to regulate short-term rentals in early 2023, and the Council did by 2024. Its housing market begins in the hundreds of thousands.

One thing Don Judd and art did not and could not change was the beauty and serenity of this West Texas desert with its guardian Chisos Mountains. Marfa is a truly outstanding town. Its locals are West Texas cool. If you want to visit Marfa, you can plan an entire vacation there and include day trips so close to amazing state and national parks. 

Kendall Davis
Author: Kendall Davis

Author: Kendall Davis Company: Lumini Services Kendall currently lives on the shores of Lake Texoma in Texas. She traveled across two-thirds of the U.S. for many years camping at lakes, rivers, and three oceans before motels and hotels if at all possible, and she continuously saw God's presence in nature. Writing for Lakehub allows Kendall to share her experience with God's creations.

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