What’s in a name?
In 1883, the wife of the president of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad named a small West Texas railroad water stop Marfa after a character in a Russian novel that she was reading at the time. Although she could not have predicted it, the name Marfa works remarkably well as an acronym that captures the history and contemporary life of this unique town.
Let’s begin with “M” -- Mystery Lights / Movies / Military Heritage / Mining
Everyone loves a good mystery. Marfa’s “Mystery Ghost Lights” were first documented by rancher Robert Ellison in 1883. There are nearly as many theories about the source of these curious lights as there are pronghorn antelope grazing beneath them. Swamp gas, phosphorescent mineral displays, ball lightning, UFO’s, secret chemicals left by the US Army, and spirits of Apache ancestors have all been proposed. Whatever their cause, these playful lights above Mitchell Flat stimulate our imagination and beckon us to adventure.
Perhaps as popular as the Mystery Lights is “M” theme #2: Movies. The beautiful lobby of the restored pueblo-deco style Hotel Paisano records images from the making of George Stevens’ academy award-winning film “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. More academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for the Coen borthers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” and Best Actor and Best Cinematography for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” again put Marfa on the cinematic map. This town successfully debuted its first annual film festival in May 2008, featuring unique outdoor movie venues. Ballroom Marfa, a nonprofit contemporary arts organization, has plans to build a chic drive-in movie theatre designed by the architect of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Marfa may never have survived without its Military heritage, our "M" #3. Originally known as Camp Marfa in 1917, Fort D.A. Russell served as headquarters for the Big Bend Military District during the Mexican Revolution. It housed a cavalry regiment, later replaced by a motorized division. It was decommissioned after World War II. The artist, Donald Judd, purchased 340 acres of this military property in the early 1970’s to display and integrate his large scale sculptural installations with the native landscape. The current headquarters for the Marfa District’s U.S. Border Patrol resides next to Judd’s artistic legacy.
Mining, “M” #4, also played a role in Marfa’s historical development, By 1930, the largest continuously operating silver mine in the United States was located in the foothills of the Chinati Mountains, about 40 miles south of Marfa . Mercury (quicksilver) was mined by the Marfa and Mariposa Company in the Terlingua area of Big Bend. These mining operations declined after 1930, except for a brief resurgence during World War II.
The first “A” is all about Art and Architecture
Artist Donald Judd was as passionate and discriminating about the context in which his work was installed as about the design of the work itself. He was drawn to the open, luminous space of the native landscape as well as its rural agricultural, industrial, and military architectural forms. After his death in 1994, two nonprofit arts organizations were created: (1) Chinati Foundation, which includes the work of Judd and his colleagues at Fort Russell; (2) Judd Foundation, which preserves properties in which Judd lived and worked. Now the stage was set for other nonprofit arts organizations to coalesce here: The Lannan Foundation (literature), Ballroom Marfa (eclectic contemporary culture, including music, visual, and performance arts), the Goode-Crowley Theatre and Marfa Live Arts, and the International Women’s Foundation.
“R”, the central letter of the word Marfa, is the backbone upon which the town was built: Railroad and Ranching.
The Southern Pacific Railroad allowed economic activity in the Big Bend region to flourish. Cattle, cotton, and silver ore could now find their way to profitable markets. Generations of local ranchers, who managed their lands with a long-term perspective, preserved the dramatic and pristine landscape that continues to inspire and sustain Marfa’s residents and tourists alike.
“F” is for Flight and Farming
From the 20th Aero Squadron patrolling the border at the time of the Mexican revolution, to the Army Air Corps training pilots for World War II, to the contemporary Glider Capital of the world, this high desert landscape is a wonderful locale to practice the art of aviation. Even the German Luffwaffe has a presence here – several of its officers, serving time as World War II POW’s at Fort D.A. Russell’s Building 98, painted panoramic murals of the Marfa Plateau. The Marfa area is also a birder’s paradise. Major migration flyways pass through the Big Bend region. Over 450 species have been observed, from the Mexican green-throated hummingbird to the Peregrine falcon.
With respect to Farming, Marfa is home to the world's largest hydroponic tomato "plant" and research center. Pecans and apples are also grown commercially in the region. Most important, there is a thriving farmers' market, called FarmStand Marfa, where locals meet and trade on Saturday mornings.
Which leads us to the final “A” - Accommodating
Welcome to Marfa. Small town living with a decidedly cosmopolitan and cutting-edge flair. An authentic cowboy heritage still viable today. Culturally diverse yet tolerant. A tractor pace in a cybernetic nanosecond world.
So that’s the profile. Now come meet Marfa’s people – friendly, caring, eccentric, independent, industrious, and in love with their landscape.