The history of Marfa, Texas, includes the mysterious Marfa Lights, the filming of the movie Giant, and the minimalistic art installations of Donald Judd.
Marfa, the county seat of Presidio County, is at the junction of US Highway 90 and 67 in the northeastern part of the county. It was established in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway. Fittingly named after a character in a novel, Marfa has a history of attracting creative spirits. Reportedly, the wife of a railroad executive suggested the name Marfa from Fyoder Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which she was reading at the time.
Marfa is in an area that has been called one of the last American frontiers. It is situated at an altitude of 4,830 feet above sea level in a semiarid region with many dry streambeds that the summer thunderstorms fill and further erode. 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.
The Marfa population continued to grow and in 1930 the town had 3,909 residents. During the 1940s, the government stationed the Chemical Warfare Brigades in Marfa and constructed a prisoner of war camp nearby. World War II also saw the building of Marfa Army Air Field ten miles east of Marfa. It was an advanced flight-training base. The military installations were closed the next year, however, ending a vital economic and cultural influence to the area.
The United States Border Patrol, Marfa Sector, with offices in the northeastern corner of the former Fort D.A. Russell compound, is responsible for immigration control in 77 counties in West Texas and 18 counties in Oklahoma, covering a total of 92,000 square miles and 365 miles of border.
Until the 1970s, Marfa was best known for the Marfa Lights and the film location for James Dean’s final picture, Giant, with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. 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, moved to Marfa from New York City with the intention of permanently installing his art.
Marfa is famous for its excellent soaring conditions and hosted the World Soaring Championship in 1970. Today, visitors can soar through the Davis Mountains on long-winged gliders with Marfa Gliders. And last but not least, don’t forget to find your way to viewing station east of town where you can study the mystery of Marfa Ghosts Lights as they dance across the foothills of the Chinati Mountains. Seen by the earlier settlers to the area, they continue to mystify travelers and passersby, and are part of the continuing enigma and magic that is MARFA.