There is a part of Marfa’s history that is very different from the current hip, artsy place most people think of when they hear the name. Back in 1911, the Mexican Revolution was underway. Fearing that Mexican troops might attack across the border, the U.S. government sent cavalry troops to Presidio County to protect its citizens. Camp Albert, later changed to Camp Marfa, the post was also home to Signal Corps biplanes that patrolled the Rio Grande during the conflict. Units from Fort Bliss went to Camp Marfa on a rotational basis for field training. The role and size of Camp Marfa grew during World War I to include state, federal and National Guard troops. Following WWI, the War Department used a large donated tract of land near Marfa to train combat troops.
In 1930, Camp Marfa was renamed Fort D. A. Russell in honor of Gen. David Allen Russell, a native New Yorker who served in the Mexican War and died during the Civil War. Only a year later, the government began discussions to abandon the fort and its $480,000 annual payroll. The citizens of Marfa fought hard to keep the fort open, but lost the fight in 1932 and the installation was turned over to caretakers.
However, the closure was short-lived. In 1935 the post was reopened to house 700 men of the Seventy-seventh Field Artillery. The first group scheduled for officer training arrived in 1938 and training continued at the fort for several years. Prior to and during World War II, Fort Russell added 2,400 acres donated by the citizens of Marfa, planted 1,000 trees, improved existing buildings, and built new ones. By this time 1,000 men were stationed at the fort. In 1944 the first woman officer was assigned to the post, and civilian women replaced soldiers as drivers of cars and trucks. During the war a camp for prisoners of war also was established at Marfa. Texas had approximately twice as many POW camps as any other state, first because of the available space, and second, curiously, because of the climate. The Geneva Convention of 1929 requires that prisoners of war be moved to a climate similar to that where they are captured; apparently it was thought that the climate of Texas is similar to that of North Africa.
Fort D. A. Russell was deactivated in 1945. In 1949 most of the fort area and facilities were sold to private citizens. Today, shells of former barracks and other buildings dot the weed-covered grounds. Some buildings have been repurposed to serve as home to the Chinati Foundation and a museum for the artwork of Donald Judd and others.
REFERENCES: Lee Bennett, “FORT D. A. RUSSELL,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qbf14), accessed November 10, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Marfa exists on (at least) two planes. One is the small town in the high-desert of Southwest Texas - its history rich with commerce, art, and government. The other plane on which Marfa exists is more ephemeral…almost a state of mind. The first one is fortunately still tangible, albeit not what it used to be. But the first time you go to Marfa you’re not sure which one you’ll experience. Fortunately when I was there last summer it was not ephemeral…except for the “Marfa Lights”.
For a photographer, Marfa is a playground. There is no shortage of things and places to shoot. And the early morning and evening light is wonderful. I found the Jordan Coal Yard (above) during a midday walkabout and made a point of being there early the next morning. I still haven’t found information on the life of the Jordan Coal Yard, so if you know please share. Another site where is like to shoot is Fort D. A. Russell, the WW I & WW II army post just outside of town. More than half of the former base is now home to the Chinati Foundation. But it’s the other part, dotted with the remains of barracks and other buildings, that is more fun for this photographer.
Quite a few old buildings in Marfa have been re-purposed - most notably those purchased by Donald Judd. Many others have either been preserved or restored to their former glory. The Hotel Paisano falls into this category. This cream and white stucco Spanish-Colonial style building housed the stars and crew of the movie, Giant, when it was shot in 1955. Its courtyard is a pleasant place for morning coffee or happy hour. Throughout the town a remnants and relics of Marfa’s history.
You can see other images from Marfa on my website.