February 5, 2020 1146 AM
Picture Marfa, sitting alone, nursing a ranch water at the Lost Horse.
Suave, sexy Presidio, a few seats down, makes eye contact. Casual and confident, he ambles over and asks, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” Marfa is flummoxed – she has no idea what her sign is. Presidio drifts away, and chats up Ojinaga at the south end of the bar.
Houston, we have a problem. Solving that problem is the subject of this column: when was Marfa born? Figuring out her precise time of birth, for Marfastrology purposes, is easier said than done. But what kind of a serious fake astrologer would I be if I couldn’t throw a proper birth chart for our beloved town?
Let’s dig in, with a little help from our friends, past and present. Historian friends like Lonn Taylor, Lee Bennett and her Marfa Junior Historians, Cecilia Thompson, Louise O’Connor, Sterry Butcher, the Marfa Public Library, our County Clerk’s Office and the Marfa and Presidio County Museum. Presidio County was initially decreed by the Texas Legislature on January 3,1850. Twenty-five years later, the county became formally organized (and down-sized a tad) on May 13,1875. Then it’s another ten years before Marfa became the Presidio County seat. By a popular vote of 391 to 302, the removal of the county seat from Fort Davis to Marfa became official on July 25,1885. So, is this the date we should use to proclaim Marfa’s cosmic arrival?
Think again, buckaroo. If we use that county seat date, then Lee Bennett would surely protest from the Great Beyond. Why? Because Lee chaired the steering committee for the massively successful Centennial Marfa Celebration, held in 1983. Which would make Marfa’s official birthday sometime in 1883 (not 1885).
So far, so good. But we’re not out of the Marfa Plateau just yet. Exactly when in 1883 does Marfa get her first swaddle? Loosen your chaps, because it gets a little tricky from here.
Lee’s planning committee, as recorded in the August 12,1982 issue of The Big Bend Sentinel, chose May 6, 7 and 8, 1983 to celebrate Marfa’s centennial. These dates were selected, not because that was Marfa’s official naissance, but for practical reasons – good weather and a time when Marfa’s teachers and students could join in the fun and not conflict with end-of-year school activities. It turned out to be an auspicious choice of dates for the fete. A horse named
Marfa ran in the Kentucky Derby that very weekend. I kid you not. The horse was even favored to win, but alas finished fifth on a sloppy track.
Putting the mint juleps aside for a moment, we still have a mystery to solve. Cuando in 1883 is that eventful birth? Marfa made application to Washington, D.C. for a new post office on March 22,1883. That application was granted by the assistant post master general on April 21,1883. That sounds pretty official. Now can we cast Marfa’s birth chart?
Not so fast Shorthorns, but we’re getting warmer. The truth is, Marfa’s mother (let’s call her Mary) went into labor circa January 1882. Think railroad labor. The Southern Pacific Railway had been laying track east of El Paso, but lack of water was a serious problem. Water wells needed to be dug every 20 to 30 miles so that the steam engines would have water for their boilers. These wells became known as “Tank Towns,” and were named by persons affiliated with the railroad. As we all know (and accept as gospel, no matter what any interloper may say), the wife of the railroad chief engineer was given the honor of naming our as yet undesignated water stop. She chose Marfa, a character in Dostoevsky’s Brothers’ Karamazov. The eastbound tracks arrived here on January 16,1882.
But wait! We’ve only got half a railroad. The Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway (a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific) was making tracks westbound from San Antonio, and hadn’t yet united with its eastbound mate. The gap was closed at Mile Post 415 at exactly 2 p.m. on January 12,1883. A gold spike was driven by Colonel Thomas W. Pierce, president of the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio, to celebrate the union. What’s more, this precise moment was officially captured for posterity when the mayors of San Antonio and El Paso exchanged telegrams as the lines met.
The El Paso Times noted the occasion, proclaiming that at long last, the Southern Pacific Railway had now linked its Sunset Route from New Orleans west to Los Angeles. Marfa is on the map. Its ranchers could access San Antonio cattle markets by rail. The first passenger train from San Francisco reaches San Antonio [through Marfa] by February 7,1883. Within a year, Marfa’s got a boxcar railroad station, one store, one hotel, a post office, a Chinese restaurant, a gambling hall, a few adobe homes and nearly a hundred people on a good day.
Marfa is birthed, mis amigos, she’s in the straw. A Capricorn with Gemini rising, a rare four planet stellium in Taurus and, as luck would have it, Uranus playing a lead role in her astrological cast. Stay tuned for “Birth Chart Marfa: Part Two.” Lovely Marfa is flummoxed no more.
Jack Copeland is a retired busboy radiologist and active Judd Foundation tour guide.
Historical resources for this column include “History of Marfa and Presidio County, Texas,
Vol One, 1535 – 1900” by Cecilia Thompson, “Images of America: Marfa” by Louise S. O’Connor
and Cecilia Thompson (2009), “Junior Historian Files” and the “Centennial Marfa File” from the Marfa Public Library and from the Marfa and Presidio County Museum, and “Presidio County Commissioners Court Minutes” (November 12,1883, Vol 2). Astrology source includes notes from astrologer Bill Nolan.