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.
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.
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 …
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.
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