Another early look at bustling downtown Marfa.

Episode 3: Just Say No

Please excuse any typos or other errors. Actually don’t excuse them…just give me a heads up about them. Feel free to comment on anything or ask questions below.

October 25, 2021

On Marfa

Richard West wrote an amazing piece in 1977 for Texas Monthly“The Last Frontier: What Texas was, Marfa still is”–that creates a really good picture of what was going on with the cattle industry in Marfa during the 70s. Sheriff Thompson gets a bit of ink, which helped fill out our descriptions of him. The story has some great photos as well from John Bintliff, including this one of Thompson and his deputies.

Rick Thompson and deputies. John Bintliff photo.

We knew there was no way we were going to be able to sum everything about Marfa, it’s history, and the strange things that make it tick today. We barely mention Donald Judd, the artist who ended up unwittingly steering the town in a different direction. Nor did we mention the Marfa lights or the funky art scene and tourist installations like Prada Marfa. El Cosmico and the boom of young Austinites and others moving to Marfa doesn’t even get a nod. We wanted Marfa to be a character of sorts, but wanted that character be the town evolving through the 70s and 80s and not an overview of the somewhat chic destination and arts hub.

So if you have no clue what I’m talking about, this is a starter–a Texas Monthly piece, “A Battle for the Soul of Marfa.” The article was rather controversial in Marfa, particularly for the article’s focus, Tim Crowley, which resulted in the rather absurdly long clarification/correction list at the end.

Enrique Madrid

From Texas Monthly: Enrique's complex formula for round tortillas.
From Texas Monthly: Enrique’s complex formula for round tortillas.

I talked to Enrique Madrid for about an hour just setting up an interview with him. Then another half hour just confirming the interview time. And, wow, was it an earful….of the most amazing facts and insights on the border there in Presidio County, as well as all the connections to U.S. history. I think this tidbit from a Texas Monthly article in 2011 sums up Enrique pretty well: “I think of Enrique, a historian, archaeologist, cook, defender of the borderlands, author, and lecturer whose family has been living in the area around what is now Redford for about 12,000 years.”

Sheriff Hank Hamilton

Sheriff Thompson, right, and his murdered predecessor, Hank Hamilton

The murder sheriff Hank Hamilton is a bizarre and tragic story. The sheriff was shot several times trying to question a man who was parked without permission on ranch land outside of Marfa. The sheriff was carrying a gun that day, by the way, even though he was known to not carry one. In a macabre twist, the murderer had captured the entire encounter with the sheriff on a small tape recorder in his car. That tape would later be played in court. I tried to find that tape, but everyone I asked just laughed–a tape from 40-odd years ago? The Big Bend Sentinel had the coverage of the crime and trial at the time (top right column).

October 29, 2021

The Sheriff’s PSA on locking up drug smugglers

Middle aged Sheriff Rick Thompson with White Cowboy Hat. Text: 1-800-Be-Alert
Sheriff Rick Thompson wanted your help to lock up smugglers.

I was aware of the 1993 PBS Frontline documentary, which has a nice segment on Chambers and Thompson–including interviews with muckraker journalist Jack McNamara and a shadow-hidden Sam Thomas (the informant). I had found the transcript online. But I needed the audio! I really wanted to hear the sheriff’s public service announcement on locking up smugglers.

Getting that audio was extremely challenging. The archivists at WGBH public radio in Boston were largely in shutdown mode from the pandemic, and the original video was never digitized to archive. The archivist there was very kind and agreeable to getting it done for me….someday!

There were three VHS copies of the documentary in three different college campuses around the country, but they also were in different modes of shutdown. My plan was to pay a college student (since they were the only ones allowed to access the libraries at the time) to check out a copy and mail it to me.

An old white pickup drives up on the muddy riverbank after crossing the Rio Grande
Frontline shows just how easy it was to cross the Rio Grande. This is the exact spot where the cocaine came across near Candelaria.

But my producer, Eric, suggested one more try with an expert archival searcher on the Campside team. She came back right away with a link to the show; apparently some site had posted it only two weeks before!

In addition to getting to see a few of the story characters in action, there’s some great footage of a truck crossing the Rio Grande in Candelaria and the footbridge there.

Jack McNamara…the muckraker

Egad, how to start with Jack. He has become a friend I’ve never met in person. I’ve spent hours and hours with him on the phone; he was a trusted source for so much information on the story. He was the only journalist I talked to who was there when it all went down. A couple other crack reporters in Fort Davis and Pecos also did some great work, but they had died. I also did interview the then publisher of the Big Bend Sentinel, Robert Halpern, but it was early on and he didn’t share anything new.

Jack’s dogged decade-long battle in the courts over public records related to this case also could be a podcast in itself.

Jack lives in Oregon now. I had planned to fly up and interview him, but the pandemic kind of blew that out of the water. I’ll try to post some Jack stories and pages from his publication, Nimby News, in a separate post.

More to come…

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