Former tenant visits historic Collie House
By RICHARD MARK GLOVER
MARFA – The historic two-story Collie House on El Paso Street in Marfa had a visit last week from one its former tenants. Earl Murtha, born in the house in 1926, stopped in for a round of golf at the highest golf course in Texas along with his wife Beverly, his daughter Susan (Murtha) Carl and her husband Jeff Carl. We met later for coffee at Frama.
“This was the Marfa hospital,” Earl said of the coffee shop and landromat. He sat with his back against the plastered wall taking in the bamboo floors and the afternoon coffee crowd. “She was born here.” He nodded toward Susan seated on the other side of the table. “Dr Searls, I believe. I was working at the Safeway and walked over to check on them.”
Murtha’s grandparents, Lula and George Collie, inherited the 1890s-era adobe Collie home from Lula’s parents (Farmer) at the turn of the century.
Earl’s father Earl Murtha, a former Philadelphia policeman, died three years after Earl was born. Young Earl continued to live in the Collie House with his mother Carroll, older brother Casey, uncle Johnny Collie, grandma Lula and an occasional boarder.
Boarders came and went in the eight-room house.
“Most of ‘em were with the railroad,” Murtha said. “Some were salesmen.”
Murtha swam at a long-gone lake 12 miles south of Marfa called “San Esteban Dam.” Otherwise the geography was not much different than today.
“I used to practice tennis against those walls,” Murtha said, referring to the Crowley Theatre, a feed store when Murtha was a teenager. Memorial Funeral Home (Padre’s), down the street, still used a horse drawn hearse when Murtha was born.
Murtha’s uncle, Johnnie Collie, was Marfa’s oldest living World War I veteran before he died, raised dogs of various and unknown pedigrees at the Collie House. The late and former mayor of Marfa, Bobby Donaldson, hauled away 30 of the canines in a horse trailer one morning after one too many complaints.
Collie was 98 when he moved from the house in 1996. It has not been occupied since.
Several owners have come and gone. Marfa restaurateur Tom Rapp owned it briefly. Jenny and Mark Johnson bought it five years ago.
“We chose this house because we thought it was beautiful, and that restoring it would be positive for the town of Marfa,” said Jenny Johnson. “We’ve been involved in redevelopment of historic properties in Houston, where we live, so it seemed like a natural choice.”
Ty Mitchell, Marfa bar owner (Lost Horse Saloon) and builder worked on the foundation.
“I took it on as a challenge,” Mitchell said. “Four jacks, four men and four feet at a time.”
With the help of Herman Acosta, architect Melissa McDonnell, engineer Dan Ray and plenty of bracing from a two inch pipe cage Mitchell built to protect his men against cave-ins, his crew dug out the old cement perimeter foundation from under the adobes and put the building back on tierra firma.
“Most of the cement was poor quality. Cement of the time. Some parts better than others, depending on the mood of the crew who mixed it,” Mitchell said.
They pulled steel out of it, but it wasn’t rebar.
“Prisoner leg irons,” Mitchell said. “About 25 of them. Might have been from the Confederate War.”
Earl Murtha went to war in 1943. He served in WWII with the 42nd Infantry Division under both General Patton and General Bradley.
“I preferred Patton,” Murtha said. “He advanced with tanks, Bradley advanced with infantry.”
In 1945, with the Germans on the run, Murtha and several other soldiers were ordered to guard the Braun House in Munich, a Hitler camp that had been abandoned by the fuehrer.
“I needed something to eat with, so I went into the house and found a fork,” Murtha said.
A year later and back in the states, Murtha looked through his Army rucksack and found the fork. Engraved in the shank was a swastika, an eagle and the letters A H.
“It was the first time I noticed,” Murtha said.
The Collie House is hard not to notice today as it nears completion, its second floor overlooking Marfa’s historic merchant district.
Rob Crowley’s Sage Construction with help from architect David Branch work to bring the house back to its original look.
“We’ve done a ton of structural repairs,” Crowley said as he pointed at the new steel rods running parallel with the floor joist.”
With help, the two mix batches of “zoquete” or earth plaster, “equal parts of sand, dirt and straw.” They use the concoction to daub the walls inside and out. A lime plaster is planned for the final exterior coat.
Offset from the front door, the original stairs climb straight and true. The massive window headers are also original and made from used redwood railroad ties, while iron straps, rusty but strong, hang between the frames under the second floor.
“When the house was built they did a good job at making fundamental structural decisions,” Crowley said. “And good building practices.”
Murtha practiced football with Marfa High in the early 1940’s culminating in 1942, the year they ran a lot of sweeps.
“I was a pull-out guard,” Murtha said. “Not big, but fast. We won the region that year and got the first trophy for Marfa High.”
Like the Collie House, the trophy still stands.
Story filed under: Features