“Presidio County comprises 3,857 square miles of contrasting topography, geology, and vegetation. In the north and west clay and sandy loams cover the rolling plains known as the Marfa Plateau and the Highland Country, providing good ranges of grama grasses for the widely acclaimed Highland Herefords.”
”In the central, far western, and southeastern areas of the county some of the highest mountain ranges in Texas are found. These peaks are formed of volcanic rock and covered with loose surface rubble. They support desert shrubs and cacti and dominate a landscape of rugged canyons and numerous springs. The spring-fed Capote Falls, with a drop of 175 feet the highest in Texas, is located in western Presidio County.”
“The area around the present town of Presidio on the Rio Grande, known as La Junta de los Ríos, is believed to be the oldest continuously cultivated farmland in Texas. About 1500 B.C. corn farmers of the Cochise culture settled there to use the abundant water, fertile farmland, and bountiful game. Since La Junta was located on an ancient and heavily traveled north-south trade route, its settlers absorbed the cultures of passersby.”
“Although Spaniards explored the area of present Presidio County, they established no settlements there because they could not control the Apache and Comanche Indians. Indian depredations continued under the Mexican government, but the first white settlement in the area of present Presidio County was established on Cibolo Creek three miles north of the site of Presidio in January 1832 by the family of Lt. Col. José Ygnacio Ronquillo, his soldiers, and laborers. Located on the Ronquillo Land Grant and called El Cíbolo, the settlement was abandoned in November 1832 when the soldiers were called away to fight Indians.”
“Although the United States census of 1850 reported no population for Presidio County, a sufficient number lived there to establish the county from Bexar Land District on January 3, 1850. Fort Leaton was the as the county seat. In 1854 the army built Fort Davis in northern Presidio County to protect travelers and settlers.”
“With the outbreak of the Civil War Fort Davis closed, and Indian attacks resumed. The fort was reopened in 1867, and the population of the county increased threefold by 1870, when 1,636 people were listed as residents, 494 of them were women and 772 were Mexican emigrants. The black population increased to 489 when buffalo soldiers were stationed at Fort Davis. Presidio County was organized in 1875 as the largest county in the United States, with 12,000 square miles. Fort Davis was named the county seat.”
“The 1880s brought Presidio County a larger population and improvements in the economy and in transportation. The census of 1880 reported 2,873 inhabitants, a total increase of 1,237 and 823 more Mexican immigrants than in 1870. John W. Spencer, a local rancher and trader, found a silver deposit in the Chinati Mountains in 1880 that resulted in the opening of Presidio Mine and the beginning of the company town of Shafter.”
“The railroad reached Presidio County in 1882 when the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway laid tracks through its northeastern corner. With the railroad to move livestock and the Indian threat over, a new generation of cattlemen came into the county and started large ranches in 1884 and 1885. W. F. Mitchell built the first barbed wire fence in the county at Antelope Springs in 1888.”
“The first sighting of the phenomenal Marfa Lights was recorded in 1883 when Robert Reed Ellison came through Paisano Pass and saw the mysterious lights. On any clear night they are still visible between Marfa and Paisano Pass. The lights at times appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. The source of the lights and the reason for their movements have not been explained.”
“The boundaries and seat of Presidio County were changed in the 1880s. Marfa was established in 1883, and the county seat was moved there from Fort Davis in 1885. Two years later Fort Davis became the seat of Jeff Davis County, which was established from Presidio County lands. That same year Brewster, Buchel, and Foley counties were also carved from Presidio, reducing the county to its present size as the fourth largest in the state.”
“Although the number of farms, the acreage under cultivation, and the volume of production continued to increase steadily through the 1910 census, the real change in Presidio County agriculture came after 1914 when farmers began growing cotton. With the completion that year of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande a large and reliable irrigation source was available for the new crop. In 1919 four bales of cotton were grown on twelve acres of land, but in 1929 production climbed to over 3,800 bales on 6,587 acres”
“The growth of Presidio County’s population in the 1910s reflected the impact of the Mexican Revolution on border life. Refugees migrated to the county from Chihuahua as the fighting moved into northern Mexico. The United States Army established several posts in the county to watch for border incursions. Marfa became the headquarters for the Big Bend Military District, and in 1917 the Army established Camp Marfa, later called Fort D. A. Russell, at Marfa to protect the border. Cavalry posts were established at Shafter, Candelaria, Redford, Presidio, Indio, Ruidosa, and Camp Holland. Raids by Mexican bandits and paramilitary forces invited fierce and sometimes excessive retaliation by the United States military and by the Texas Rangers. Incidents like the Brite Ranch Raid, the Neville Ranch Raid, and the Porvenir Massacre spread insecurity and racial hatred throughout the county and the border region.”
“As Presidio County entered the 1930s the people faced a drought and a population decline. The county was not greatly affected by the Great Depression until the summer of 1932. Although low silver prices closed Presidio Mine at Shafter with a loss of 300 jobs in 1930, the two banks in Marfa remained stable. The county reported eight manufacturing establishments with twenty-seven employees, a payroll of nearly $22,000, and products valued at slightly under $200,000. Throughout 1930 and 1931 Marfa continued construction of a new hotel, a clinic, and several shops.”
“During World War II Presidio County enjoyed economic prosperity as the home for two military installations-Fort Russell and Marfa Army Air Field. After the war Presidio County’s population went into a thirty-year decline, falling to 7,354 in 1950, 5,460 in 1960 and 4,842 in 1970. In 1980 the county witnessed an increase in population to 5,188. The educational level of the population has increased steadily from 1950, when only 10.7 percent had completed high school, to 1980, when almost 30 percent had. In 1982 Presidio County had an estimated population of 5,500 and, with 77 percent of that number listed as Hispanic in origin, ranked seventeenth highest among all United States counties with Hispanic populations.”
“Natural resources under production in 1982 were perlite, crushed rhyolite, sand, and gravel. Silver mining contributed greatly to the economy of the county from the 1880s to the 1940s. Presidio County has no oil or gas production.”
“Over the years droughts and overgrazing damaged the range land. Parts of the prairies supported only one animal per 48 hectares. Powerful pumps, drawing water for irrigation and livestock use, lowered the groundwater levels and depleted many springs. However, in contrast to the more populous areas of the state, Presidio County offered clean air, rugged scenery, and historic sites. Among the attractions that contributed to the county’s growing tourist industry were the Marfa Lights, hunting leases, and the nearby Big Bend National Park.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, Julia Cauble Smith, “Presidio County“
The Marfa Lights, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Big Bend National Park in nearby Brewster County provide the largest source of tourism in the county. The 1956 movie Giant was filmed in the surrounding area as well.
Legend has it that the wife of either a railroad executive or its chief engineer named Marfa. The story goes that she was riding a train out west reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, when her husband asked her to pick a name for the community they stopped in. They say she chose the name of the elderly servant in her book, hence Marfa.
This is, as it is for many people, one of my favorite Texas courthouses.
I was the guest of Marfa and Presidio County on August 14, 2013.
Presidio County Courthouse – 1880
Presidio County has been through three county seats: Fort Leaton, Fort Davis, and Marfa. As it turns out, Fort Davis is the only county seat in Texas history to have served two different counties in its time. Part of the process of Presidio County assuming its current borders included carving away a portion of territory for Jeff Davis County in the north. There, the community of Fort Davis assumed the role of county seat. To take its place for Presidio County in the south, Marfa was then duly chosen.
The first courthouse for the county was in Fort Davis, even though that city is now part of Jeff Davis County. There are no surviving photos that I’ve found of the building, but this is a description of some value from the Texas Historical Commission:
“The courthouse was built of adobe, in a ‘U’ shape around a courtyard with a high wall and gate enclosing the courtyard. The building was covered with moderately pitched gable roofs, and had numerous doors and double hung windows facing onto the surrounding landscape. The courthouse and jail occupied the current site of the Jeff Davis County Courthouse and were accepted by the county on May 29th. The Presidio courthouse was nicknamed the ‘Bat Cave Courthouse.’ It is uncertain whether this name was inherited from the previous jail which was actually just a bat infested cellar under a house or whether the name refers to the jail built beneath the sheriff’s office in the new courthouse, accessible only from a trap door in the floor.”
Presidio County Courthouse – 1886
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
(Photo Courtesy: TSHA) (An outstanding photo)
This is the first and only courthouse to have ever been built in Marfa. To me, that’s remarkable. It’s simply astounding that a building like this was able to survive the Great Depression and the modernization efforts of the mid-20th Century. So many of its many cousins hundreds of miles back to the east did not receive the same fate. Maybe it helped being so far out on the Western plains, away from the hustle and bustle of cities like Rockport, Cooper, and Canton that destroyed some of the finest courthouses in Texas history (in my opinion, anyway). Whatever the case, kudos to the people of Presidio County for preserving one of the most magnificent surviving courthouses in our state.
English-born Alfred Giles provided the designs for this Second Empire wonder and James H. Britton served as contractor. Giles also designed one of El Paso County’s historic courthouses (the two looked somewhat similar), but that was destroyed in favor of a literal skyscraper.
This courthouse is made chiefly of stone and locally made brick, and cost the county $60,000. While the exterior bricks were once visible, a renovation in 1929 included stuccoing them over and painting that new layer a salmon color to mimic their original shade.
In fact, the building has gone through several renovations. Some of the more noteworthy ones include the installation of electricity in 1922 and replacements of insulation, wiring, paint layers, and the roof in 1985. The courthouse also got an elevator that same year.
“The octagonal tower; metal-covered cupola and Goddess of Justice are powerful symbols that can be seen for miles.”
“The corner pavillions are topped with a sleep-sloped mansard roof and wrought iron cresting. Three-story, pedimented pavillions mark the entrances.”
- Historic Texas Courthouses by Michael A. Andrews
“The Lady of Justice sculpture on top of the Presidio County Courthouse holds a scale which was shot out by a cowboy who claimed, “There is no justice in Presidio County”. The bullet holes remain there today.”
- Texas Historical Commission
In the land where earth and sky meet
The tower, cupola, and mansard-roofed, corner pavilions are still as astounding as they were when this building was the only thing visible in Marfa for miles and miles and miles.
Just imagine riding across the plains towards Marfa and suddenly spotting this in the distance, alone on the horizon. (This is the southeastern corner).
The eastern façade (on Highland Street)
The southwestern corner
The western façade (on Lincoln Street)
The interior of this historic building
The doors ahead are the entrance to the second floor’s large, district courtroom. One of my biggest regrets is that I wasn’t able to see inside of it. Court was being held when I arrived in Marfa.
The Presidio County Courthouse meets the modern era.
Here’s the look towards Lincoln Street from the western doors.
Lego brick lampposts
A “Grand Old Lady” indeed (she was 127 when I got to her)
City of Marfa
The Palace Theater on Highland Street
The fire station on Lincoln Street bears that signature Marfa pink.
This is the historic Hotel Paisano where stars like Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean stayed while filming “Giant” nearby.
It wouldn’t be Marfa is there wasn’t an old gas station philosophically questioning passerby.
Previous Courthouse: Jeff Davis County
Next Courthouse: Brewster County