A Brief History of Camp Marfa and Fort D.A. Russell
by Susanne Grube
The history of Fort D. A. Russell may be traced to 1911, when soldiers on horseback were first reported to have camped southwest of the railroad tracks, on the outskirts of Marfa. The open grassland was favorable for the cavalry, but especially important to the military was the railroad station, which established Marfa's position as a significant center for the wool, mohair and cattle business. In 1914, Camp Marfa, as it was then called, became the military headquarters of the Big Bend district. Camp Marfa provided 14 additional posts along the Mexican border with soldiers, horses and supplies. Disturbances along the border caused by the Mexican Revolution and bandits who thrived on the broken border made such an increased military presence advisable. Cavalry soldiers as well as military pilots patrolled the U.S./Mexican border, the sovereignty of which was not always respected during heated pursuits.
When Pancho Villa's troops captured Ojinaga, Chihuahua in 1914, 2,000 Mexicans took flight. Civilians as well as Mexican federal troops surrendered themselves to the U.S. Army, so as to avoid falling into the hands of their revolutionary opponents. This stream of people was marched to Camp Marfa, where they were provided for before being sent by train to El Paso.
Shortly afterwards, the construction phase at Camp Marfa began, which so far had consisted only of tents. First, a house for the commanding officer was built on the elevation close to the west gate, an area soon to become known as "Officer's Hill." Later, a 96-bed hospital, a veterinary surgery, a radio station and a theater were added. Spaces for horses and cavalry along Cavalry Row were developed in 1920, where the Chinati Foundation is located today. The U-shaped barracks were utilized as soldier's quarters. Each barrack had an accompanying smaller building used as a lavatory and a medium-sized mess hall located at the open end of the U. Each group of three buildings accommodated 74 soldiers. Parallel to the barracks sat a long row of workshops and stables, which no longer exist but for two examples near the end of the row. Also in 1920, an additional 79 buildings were erected by soldiers and civil workers. Within two years, the fundamental structure of the area around Cavalry Row and the entire fort was completed.
In 1924, the army shifted responsibility for control of the border to the newly established Border Patrol. The army transferred its focus to issues related to war and national security and defense. Marfa was chosen as an area for military maneuvers and exercises. Some ranchers in the area offered up their land for this purpose. In 1927, the U.S. government bought 448 acres, which up until then had been leased. Camp Marfa became Fort D. A. Russell in 1930, named in honor of a general who fought and died in the Civil War.
A temporary suspension of operations at the base in January of 1933 signaled a severe loss for Marfa, reflecting an equally difficult economic crisis across the country. Regular parades and sporting events such as polo, baseball and basketball were an important aspect of social life on the fort. Even the Mexican army received an invitation for a peaceful polo game. Mounted troops began to give way to to a more mechanized age, and prepare for the modern conduct of war. In 1933, the U. S. cavalry at Fort D.A. Russell was discontinued, and the ceremony that marked the First Cavalry's dismissal of their horses was an emotional event, even for civilians. Nearly 60 years later, inspired by the story of Louie, the last cavalry horse, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen created a large scale outdoor work titled Monument to the Last Horse. The 1991 piece honors Louie, who died on the fort and was buried on the site.
During the following two years, the Border Patrol leased more and more of the fort's abandoned buildings. Marfa's citizens sent several petitions to Congress, until the summer of 1935, when the fort was reinstalled for military operations. The 77th Field Artillery battalion moved in, equipped for heavy artillery. "Fort Russell Lives Again!" was the headline of the October 4, 1935 edition of The Big Bend Sentinel.
By April 1936, the re-opened Fort Russell was 20 officers and 600 soldiers strong, and plans were slowly underway to make life at the base more pleasant. Funded through the Works Progress Administration, a large gymnasium, today the Foundation's Arena, was built in 1938, using parts of a roof taken from an old airplane hangar. This building was wide enough to also allow for social gatherings and festivities. In the following year, the two artillery sheds were completed with spaces for 32 trucks in each. In 1940 the buildings of the fort were renovated, trees planted, the pool decorated with the facade of a Spanish fort, and an enclosed movie theater for 300 people was inaugurated to keep the troops in good spirits. In September 1940 the United States instituted compulsory military service as war tore through Europe. In April 1942 the first chemical Mortar Battalion was founded in Marfa, which set out for France one year later. While the regiments moved to the front, Fort D. A. Russell became a camp for German prisoners of war and temporarily housed up to 200 men. The prisoners of war left Marfa soon after the victory of Allied forces in November 1945. The end of World War II consequently led to the end of the history of Fort D.A. Russell as a center for military operations. In 1949, the government sold the property and returned the donated land to the city of Marfa. Civilians moved into the former officer's homes. Some barracks were used as warehouses, while the fort's gymnasium temporarily became a riding hall. Other buildings were converted into housing for senior citizens in the early 1970's. The rest of the buildings became increasingly more dilapidated. This was the beginning of what is now the Chinati Foundation.