Sign saying Pie Town
Food & drink,  History,  New Mexico

A pit stop in pioneering Pie Town

When I saw Pie Town on the map I knew we had to go there! Any town named after food has to be worth a visit, yes? And while getting to Pie Town involves a long drive across the empty plains of western New Mexico, for us the effort was well rewarded.

The town really is named after the humble pie! It got its name in the 1920s when an entrepreneur got the idea of opening a restaurant and serving pies to homesteaders and to early cross-country motorists. The entrepreneur in question was called Clive Norman. He was a WWI vet who had settled here to try his hand at mining. But he realised that he could make more money by selling supplies to travellers passing through, many of them driving sheep and cattle to the railhead at Magdalena some miles to the east. He opened a general store which he called Norman’s Place, so back then that was what people called this place. The story goes that he would sell them coffee and donuts which he bought from a shop in Datil a few miles down the road.

However, the owner of the Datil store, Helen McLaughlin, told him he should start making his own donuts. He tried, but his results were terrible. So instead he decided to make the dried fruit pies he’d learned to make as a teenager in Texas. They were an immediate success. Soon Norman’s Place became known as Pie Town, despite protestations from the authorities who would have preferred a more conventional name for the town.

Large thunderbird sign and rusting cars
Stop!

Pie Town grows – and shrinks – and grows

The town grew during the 1920s and 30s, with settlers arriving from Texas and Oklahoma, escaping the Dust Bowl. But in the 1950s the climate inexplicably changed, becoming much drier and causing a lot of crops to fail. Many families left Pie Town for the cities, but some remained to try to continue to make a living here.

Red and white striped flag with picture of snake
Don’t tread on me

Another blow was the coming of the interstate; I40 cuts across the state a little to the north of here. As a result the traffic dried up and the pie market collapsed. It was only revived in 1994 when a disappointed visitor to the town took matters into their own hands and opened the Pie-O-Neer Café. Soon afterwards a second pie-selling establishment followed, the Pie Town Café. Today pies are firmly back on the menu in Pie Town; there is even an annual Pie Festival.

In truth, calling Pie Town a town is a bit of a misnomer. It has just 45 inhabitants and a handful of other buildings in addition to the two cafés. But it’s a quirky, photogenic spot, just the sort of place that epitomises back-roads Americana. Old rusting cars, equally rusty signs, a collection of windmills, the fading paint-work on the cafés …

Old cola advert and rusting car
Drink Coca-Cola
Rusting baking powder advert sign
Clabber Girl

Pie time

We couldn’t come to Pie Town and not eat pie! The cornily-named Pie-O-Neer Café is closed at weekends; but fortunately we found the Pie Town Café open for business and doing a roaring trade with passing tourists like ourselves, bikers and a few locals. Luckily there was a small table free on one side of the room. This was simple but welcoming in appearance, dominated by a large counter displaying, naturally, a large selection of pies.

It was lunch-time and the menu had a variety of tempting dishes, both New Mexican (burritos, tacos) and classic US staples. But we’d had a fairly meagre ‘complimentary’ breakfast at our hotel in Socorro, so we both decided a second breakfast was in order – eggs, fried potatoes with a touch of chilli (this is New Mexico!) and crispy bacon. And of course we had pie, sharing a slice of cherry pie for dessert.

Windmills

Apart from eating pie the main sight here is the DanCyn’ Windmill Museum. This is one of those eccentric personal projects that dot the roadsides of the US and make touring here such a delight! Dan and Cyndi Lee apparently created their DanCyn’ Windmill Museum (get the pun on their names?!) in order ‘to capture the rich heritage of the area’. There are seven vintage windmills standing on the site; and since our visit they have developed the museum further by erecting an old log cabin on the plot. Although they seem to no longer have the website I consulted at the time of first writing about this trip on Virtual Tourist, I am confident that this is the cabin described there. At that time they were in the process of restoring what was once Dan’s boyhood home:

‘Dan’s father worked on the York Ranch north of Pie Town, too far away for the children to attend school, so Dan’s mother stayed near town in various houses so that she could keep the children in school. She drove the school bus and each day they hauled water in a large milk-can for the family. Dan was let out on the road before reaching home to gather firewood for the evening. At the time they stayed in the cabin, there were six in the family. Weekends were spent on the ranch with his father.’

The museum is open ‘when Dan and Cyndi are home’; but we didn’t like to bother them on a Sunday and in any case were able to get plenty of photos from the roadside.

We couldn’t linger as we were on a road trip with miles to cover before the end of the day. Nevertheless we were pleased we’d found the time to stop in quirky Pie Town and enjoy both its pies and its photogenic corners.

I visited New Mexico in 2012

18 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    I would love to visit a place like Pie Town (just got to love that name 😁) and the Pie-O-Neer Cafe (another great name) will definitely invite me to try their speciality! Ah Sarah, you’re just taking me to beautiful places 😍.

  • starship VT

    I too love these off the beaten track places just dripping with Americana, Sarah! Many times they are the highlight of a good road trip! We’ve taken a few day trips lately some with a bit of Americana in the bargain; but a lot of the time it’s also the people you talk to there that really make them special!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sylvia, and I quite agree about highlights! It’s funny you should say that about the people you meet as I’ll be making exactly that point in a few weeks’ time with a new addition to my blog 😀

  • SandyL

    Fun read Sarah. I imagine that quirky towns like this deliver a unique sense of Americana In the UK, when you do roadtrips, is there anything similar?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Sandy 🙂 No, I don’t think there’s anything quite like this in the UK. Road trips here are very different. Once you’re off the motorways progress is slow as you drive through lots of towns and villages for the most part, and/or on narrow country roads. The best stopping off points are either historical (anything from Iron Age forts and Roman remains to grand 18th and 19th century houses (think Downton Abbey!) or rural (country walks, viewpoints, cream teas in a pretty village) or coastal (walk on a beach, spot sea birds, fish and chips or ice creams with a sea view). All wonderful in their own way but not much like this!

      • SandyL

        Your UK roadtrips sound much more appealing 🙂 I admit that I don’t really like road-trips, the long hours of sitting in the car and staring at country side is a bit much for me. In my part of Canada we can drive for days & see nothing but hiway, fields & flatlands with maybe a cow or two. Canada is a lot more sparsely populated than USA so there’s not as many towns.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I like big open spaces like that (maybe we always like what is different from home, or at least, those of us who love to travel do that) but I agree seeing nothing else for days would become boring. In the US we’ve always found something of interest along the road – a quirky bit of Americana like this, or a scenic state park or at least a viewpoint or two 🙂

  • leightontravels

    I would travel any distance to see such a unique place with its unmistakable Americana vibe. Plus the chance to eat pie is always an added bonus. What life must be like for its 45 inhabitants…

    • Toonsarah

      Yes, totally worth a journey, although as it happens it was easy to include this on our route as it’s quite ner another very different place we wanted to visit, the Very Large Array (more on that in a future post) And I couldn’t help thinking how different life here must be from my own in London, or indeed that of Americans in NYC 😃

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