A Slice of History
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 to the Magdalena railhead and to market via steam locomotive. About every twenty miles, or a day’s ride on horseback, a stopping place arose with water, and eventually commerce. Three spots grew into 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 the stops to try his hand at mining. Norman realized more money could be made providing supplies to travelers. At that time the stop was simply called “Norman’s Place” because Norman had placed a sign 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 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 he had learned to make in Texas as a teen. They were a success, and soon 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 halfinterest in Pie Town for "one dollar of good and lawful money and other good and valuable considerations." He added other baked goods and a spicy chili con carne to the menu. Craig opened a mercantile store, a gasoline station and garage, a café, and a pinto bean warehouse.
Through the 20’s and 30’s Pie Town grew to 250 families with an influx of refugees from Texas and Oklahoma, escaping the Dust Bowl. Pie Town was rich and green in comparison from where they had come from.
In 1940 Russell Lee arrived in Pie Town, with 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 like an old west movie set. A stagecoach came through daily, complete with a uniformed driver and the passengers’ luggage roped to the roof of a woody station wagon stage.
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 1950’s the weather shifted, becoming much drier, causing most agriculture farms 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 some for 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-ONeer and The Good Pie. New waves of “settlers” arrive constantly, willing to try out the Pie Town dream.
Regardless, there’s something compelling about this wild, free, and timeless land and its friendly small town ease.