America’s oddest rancher

Eccentricity and personal tumult often accompany artistic talent. Such was certainly the case with Stanley Marsh, a Texas millionaire whose partially buried row of Cadillacs became a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s. Marsh died this Tuesday at Lubbock, TX. He was 76.

Marsh was a potent force both in the local artistic and philanthropic communities. Heir to a considerable oil and gas fortune, he had a reputation as a prankster and progenitor of absurdist art. Later in life, Marsh’s reputation took an ugly turn with accusations that he had molested teenage boys.

Even so, Marsh will be best remembered for those Cadillacs — a row of 10 graffiti-splattered cars standing on their noses in a bone-dry field along Interstate 40 (close to old Route 66) west of Amarillo. The work has its origins in The Ant Farm, a radical art and design collective, that Marsh commissioned to build.

The collective scoured junkyards, private owners and car lots for the raw materials. The display begins with a 1949 Club Sedan and ends with a 1963 Sedan de Ville. The vehicles allegedly tilt at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The assemblage, will celebrate its 40th anniversary Saturday.

Owing to its quirky charm, “Cadillac Ranch” as it was dubbed, quickly became a tourist attraction.

Marsh’s playfulness was evident in many of his artistic projects. These included a mesa painted to look as if it were floating and a football field-sized pool table hidden in the Panhandle terrain that only could be seen from the air. Then there were the mock street signs that mysteriously materialized all across Amarillo. They bore slogans like “Road Does Not End”; “I Have Traveled a Great Deal in Amarillo”; “I Don’t Suppose Anyone Has a Tomato?”; “It Begins With a Hanging”; “What Is a Village Without Village Idiots?” and “My Grandmother Can Whip Your Grandmother.”

Marsh could have taken a more typical path through life. Both his father and grandfather worked in the petroleum industry. It would have been easy enough for him to follow suit. In some stead, he even rebuked their name. According to the New York Times, he was born Stanley Marsh III, but changed his name to “3” because it felt “III” was too pretentious. Apparently, Marsh failed to recognize that the fight against pretension can sometimes yield its own pretensions.

His interest in creative endeavors began in childhood. That spirit stayed with him throughout life.

In a 2009 interview with the Associated Press Marsh stated, “It’s a lot better to be an artist than to be just somebody who makes things, so I said, ‘Of course I’m an artist.’”

His early privilege afforded him an Ivy League education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.

After college he returned to Amarillo in the late 1960s. There he headed a local bank and purchased KVII-TV and turned the television station into a top ratings getter.

For years Marsh along with wife Gwendolyn and their five adopted children, occupied a 300-acre estate known as Toad Hall.

Sadly, Marsh died under a dark legal cloud. Marsh was the subject of several lawsuits that accused him of paying underage boys to perform sex acts. A warrant for his arrest was issued in November 2012. Ten civil suits were settled in 2013, but the terms of the settlement were not made public. Other lawsuits were filed late last year.

As such, it’s difficult to celebrate Marsh’s creative spirit without caveat. Just as the old cars he had buried stand battered against the vast plains wind, Marsh will in death have to stand against winds of unsettled accusation.