History of Marfa

A famous quote about how awesome Marfa is or used to be.

-The important person being quoted

What is there to say about Marfa that hasn’t already been said? After all, The New York Times raved about our “minimalist art with maximum flavor,” the Wall Street Journal called us a “marvel,” Le Monde said we’re an “oasis d’artistes” (we like the sound of that), and we haven’t even gotten to the stories in The Guardian, Der Spiegel, GQ, Vogue, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. Oh, and don’t forget that Morely Safer segment on 60 Minutes that called us the “capital of quirkiness.” So it’s safe to say the secret is out about our little town of less than 2,000. So what is the hubbub all about? We think it’s due to a few factors.

Back in the days of steam locomotives, trains needed to fill up with water fairly often to keep running. Somehow through fate or design or a little of both, Marfa was chosen in the late 1880s as a water stop along the ____ railroad line. The wife of a railroad executive named the town, the theory being that she was reading a novel with a character named Marfa in it, some say it was The Brothers Karamozov, while etymologist Barry Popik found it was actually Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff.

In 1911, Fort D.A. Russell opened its doors as “Camp Albert,” a base for cavalry and air reconnaissance protecting Far West Texas from bandits like Pancho Villa. The base was expanded and renamed Camp Marfa during World War I. It wasn’t until 1930 that the base received the “D.A. Russell” name we know it as today. During World War II, military life kept Marfa buzzing. German prisoners of war were brought to our town and chemical mortar training was conducted here (the source of the quirkiness, perhaps?). In 1949, the glory days of the fort were gone and the land was divided up and sold to local citizens.

Ranching kept Marfa alive, though quiet, in the next decade until the cast and crew of the Warner Bros. film Giant blew into town in 1956. At that time, the population here was about 4,500, all of whom seemed overjoyed to host A-list Hollywood stars in their remote backyard. The major stars of Giant, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper, all stayed in the Hotel Paisano for about two weeks during filming before moving into privately rented homes. Rumor is that Liz Taylor had her meals flown in from L.A. everyday– of course this was before we had Jett’s Grill!

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that minimalist artist Donald Judd came to town. With the help of the Dia Art Foundation out of New York, Judd acquired the former Fort D.A. Russell and slowly converted buildings to house permanent, large-scale collections of art. Originally conceived to include works by Judd, John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin, the museum was later expanded to include works by Carl Andre, Ingolfur Arnarrson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ilya Kabakov, Roni Horn, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley. Judd’s museum opened to the public in 1986 as the Chinati Foundation. Judd’s children formed the Judd Foundation in 1996 to also preserve the works and spaces of their father here in Marfa as well as in New York. Both organizations offer tours of Judd’s works and spaces by appointment or reservations.

Meanwhile, those mysterious Marfa Lights continue to keep our town an attraction for the curious; McDonald Observatory, just outside Ft. Davis offers family-friendly programming and late-night Star Parties; and Big Bend National Park and the new (opened to the public in 2007) Big Bend Ranch State Park are popular destinations approximately three hours from here along FM-170, or the River Road, one of National Geographic’sworld’s greatest driving tours.” But this is all just the tip of the proverbial iceberg here in Marfa (we’re landlocked, so no glaciers to be found).

With world-class restaurants, unique shopping, live music, Lannan Foundation authors and poets in residence, and internationally-recognized galleries and artists mixed in among popular cowboy watering holes and a slow, borderland culture, Marfa is unlike any place you’ve ever been. So come, make the Hotel Paisano your basecamp while you sit for a spell, enjoy our lazy days, off-beat business hours, vista views, and oddities galore. Nuestra casa es su casa!

Eyewitness News Road Trippers Steve Campion and Pooja Lodhia ventured all the way to West Texas from Houston for their latest segment shown here:

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