This article is reprinted from the September 2013 issue of the Catron Courier newspaper with permission.
A Slice of History – Pie Town, Then and Now
By Sam “Sweetwater” Savage
What’s now highway 60 slices through a famous cattle path called “The Driveway.” Starting in 1885, cattle and sheep were driven from New Mexico and eastern Arizona as far as 120 miles along this path to the Magdalena rail head and finally to market via steam locomotive. About every twenty miles along this path, which was a day’s ride on horseback, rose up a stopping place for camping, getting water, and eventually for commerce. Three of these spots grew up to be Quemado, Pie Town, and Datil.
When The Driveway was at its peak in the 1922, a man named Clive Norman, a WWI vet, settled at one of these stops, initially trying his hand at mining, then realizing more money was to be made providing supplies to travelers. At that time the stop was simply called “Norman’s Place” largely because Norman had placed a sign saying that outside his general store which sold gasoline, kerosene and groceries to the cowboys, sheep herders and other travelers. He also filled their bellies with hot coffee and donuts that he purchased from Helen McLaughlin’s bakery in Datil.
When Mrs. McLaughlin told him to “start making your own donuts” he tried, but his were terrible, so he switched to making dried fruit pies that he had learned to make in Texas as a teen. They were an immediate success, and soon the “Norman’s Place” became known as “Pie Town” despite objections from the authorities who wanted a more conventional name for the town.
In 1924 a red-headed Texas cowboy named Harmon L. Craig bought a half-interest in Pie Town for “one dollar of good and lawful money and other good and valuable considerations.” He added several other baked goods and a spicy chili-con-carne to the menu. Over time Craig opened a mercantile store, a gasoline station and garage, a café, and a pinto bean warehouse.
Through the rest of the 20s and 30’s Pie Town grew to 250 families with an influx of refugees from Texas and Oklahoma escaping the Dust Bowl who came to establish homesteads. Pie Town was rich and green in comparison from where they had come from.
It was 1940 when Russell Lee arrived to Pie Town, in the company of his wife, Jean, and with a trunk full of cameras. At that time the town boasted a Farm Bureau building, a hardware and feed store, a café a curio shop, a hotel, a baseball team, an elementary school, and a taxidermy business. There was a real Main Street that looked a little like an old-west movie set. A stagecoach came through daily, complete with a uniformed driver and with the passengers’ luggage roped to the roof of a woody station wagon.
As the Magdalena News put it in its issue of June 6, 1940: “Mr. Lee of Dallas, Texas, is staying in Pie Town, taking pictures of most anything he can find. Mr. Lee is a photographer for the United States department of agriculture. Most of the farmers are planting beans this week.” Little did anyone know how famous these photographs would later become. Some of these photographs are viewable at the Pie-O-Neer Pie Shop in Pie Town, an exhibit on loan from Cielito Lindo Ranch.
In the 1950s the weather mysteriously shifted, becoming much drier, causing most agriculture to fail. Many families left Pie Town for the cities and regular paychecks. The Dust Bowl refugees became refugees again, this time leaving for California and Albuquerque.
But the town never died out entirely – the pioneer spirit lives on to this day. Those who’ve stayed behind have made a living by any means they could: drilling wells, ranching, running shops, and opening cafés like the Pie-O-Neer and The Good Pie. And new homesteaders arrive constantly, willing to try out the Pie Town dream.
Artists flock to Pie Town for the natural beauty and peaceful quiet. Many successful authors call Pie Town their home. Astronomers come here for the dark skies. Sportsmen move here for the unequaled hunting opportunities. Hikers, bikers and climbers consider Pie Town to be a paradise. Some people come to experiment with earth-building and living a homestead lifestyle with solar and wind power allowing them to live in a completely independent way. Some come to Pie Town to retire, but even more come here to pursue what seems like an endless possibility of new beginnings.
Regardless, there’s something beautiful and compelling about this wild, free and timeless land and its friendly small-town ease.