Marfa, Texas

Nestled in a remote region of the US state of Texas is a small town called Marfa. The town was named after a character in a novel, though it is not certain which novel. At one time, Marfa had a population of more than 3,900 residents. Its economy was highly dependent on a military base that was used during World War II. After the base closed, Marfa went into a slow period of decline. But in the 1970s, the town emerged to become a prominent community for the arts. Today, the town is still well-known for its arts scene and famous for the mysterious Marfa Lights. 

Geography Of Marfa

Welcome to Marfa Est. 1883 sign on the side of the road on US 90. Editorial credit: Rosemarie Mosteller / Shutterstock.com

Marfa is located in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos region of far western Texas, between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The semi-arid desert area in which it is situated is considered part of the Chihuahua Desert. The town sits at an elevation of more than 1,472 meters. There are only a few other small towns and villages in the vicinity, including Alpine to the east, Fort Davis to the northeast, and the tiny village of Valentine to the northwest. Marfa has a total area of 4.1 sq. km.

Population Of Marfa

Marfa is home to 1,531 people. The town's population has decreased considerably since the last census in 2010, when it was 1,981. Almost 97% of this population is white, of whom 69.1% are Hispanic and 27.6% are non-Hispanic. Native Americans make up the second biggest population group in Marfa, at 2.89%. The majority of the town's population, 65%, speak Spanish, while 34.9% speak English. Over 72% of residents in Marfa were born in the United States, and 42.82% were born in the town itself. Nearly all of Marfa residents who were not born in the United States are from Latin America.

Economy Of Marfa

The average household income in Marfa is $48,931, and the poverty rate is 14.79%. The Native American population is particularly affected by poverty. In fact, according to statistics, the entire Native American population of the town lives in poverty. Marfa is a popular tourist destination, particularly for art-lovers, which may explain why the town's largest economic sector in terms of the number of employees is accommodation & food services, followed by agriculture, forestry, & fishing, and construction. 

History Of Marfa

Marfa texas
Plywood tribute to the 1956 film "Giant," erected by artist John Cerney in October 2018. Parts of the movie were filmed at this spot. Editorial credit: magraphy / Shutterstock.com

Marfa began in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway. There are two theories as to how the town was named Marfa. One theory suggests that the town is named after a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, which the wife of a railroad executive read. Another theory contends that the town is named after Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne's novel, Michael Strogoff. At its peak in 1930, the population of Marfa was 3,909 residents.

During World War II, Marfa Army Airfield, located just 16 km from the town, trained thousands of pilots. The US Army also stationed its Chemical Warfare Brigades there. The military base brought significant growth to the town, including churches, dance halls, and hotels. At the end of WWII, however, the US military withdrew from the area, and the town of Marfa began a slow decline.

Marfa began turning into an arts center in 1971 when former New York artist Donald Judd moved there. After renting summer houses in the town for a few years, Judd purchased two large hangars and some other smaller buildings, which he used to store his artwork. He also purchased a decommissioned military base named Fort D.A. Russell. Judd used the buildings of this former military base to create art spaces. In 1994, he passed away, but two foundations called The Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation have carried on his artistic legacy. The Chinati Foundation has held an open house event showcasing Marfa's artwork since 1986. In recent years, other artists have moved to the town to live and work. As a result, new art spaces, facilities, and associations have been created in Marfa. The town has also served as the backdrop for films, including No Country for Old Men. It was even featured on an episode of the popular cartoon, The Simpsons

Attractions In Marfa

Bright Roadside Sign for West Texas Bed and Breakfast
Bright Roadside Sign for West Texas Bed and Breakfast in Marfa. Editorial credit: xradiophotog / Shutterstock.com

Arts Scene

The most notable attractions in Marfa are related to the town's arts scene. Among these attractions is Building 98, which is located in a building that was once part of the Fort D.A. Russell base. The building is now run by the International Woman's Foundation, an artist-in-residence program there since 2002. It is now on the National Registrar of Historic Places. Several other art studios and facilities are also located in and around Marfa. These include Ann Marie Nafziger Studio, Ballroom Marfa, the Chinati and Judd Foundations, Exhibitions 2D, Greasewood Gallery, Hacienda Del Arcon, Inde/Jacobs Leana Clifton Studio and Gallery, Marfa Studio of Arts, and the Rule Gallery. 

Marfa Lights

The most prominent attraction in Marfa that is not directly related to the town's arts scene is arguably the Marfa Lights, also known as the Marfa Mystery Lights. These lights appear on the horizon southeast of the town, in an area that is largely uninhabited and difficult to traverse. The lights appear in different colors at random times during the night, regardless of the season or weather. There is no agreed-upon explanation of how and why the Marfa Lights appear. Some believe they are simply the product of atmospheric reflections of cars and campfires at night. Others believe the lights are paranormal and may even be caused by UFOs.

Other Attractions

Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa, Texas
Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa, Texas.

Other sites of interest in Marfa include the Marfa Holocaust Museum, which features models of ships that European Jews used on clandestine voyages to what was the British Mandate of Palestine during World War II. The historic Presidio County Courthouse, the Marfa Spirit Company distillery, and the Marfa Municipal Golf Course (Texas' highest golf course) are popular among tourists.

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