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Pie Town Pie Festival Draws Crowds to Rural Catron County

RESERVE-Sloppy pie-eating contests, baking competitions, western dancing and hundreds of homemade fruit, meat and vegetable pies are all part of the fun at Pie Town's 23rd annual, all-day pie festival Sept. 13.

A youngster competes in a pie-eating contest during Pie Town's September 2002 pie festival, which attracted more than 1,500 people. This year's festival Sept. 13 will include pie-eating and pie-baking contests, a fun run for youth and adults, country music and western dancing, arts and crafts, and hundreds of home-made pies for sale. (08/28/2003) (Courtesy Photo by Charlene Selbee)

"It's a down-home festival with good old-fashioned fun," said Julie Akin, a Pie Town council member and event organizer. "It's a big community get-together that draws tourists and fun lovers from everywhere, even as far away as California."

The festival's powerful tourism potential led New Mexico State University's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) project to help promote the event to increase interest in Catron County.

"Pie Town is a tiny, Mayberry USA kind of place that has this wild, crazy festival that everybody can come and enjoy," said Charlene Selbee, REDTT program coordinator. "But it's just the tip of the iceberg. Catron is a vast, beautiful, rural county that has so many attractions. We want to build on the pie festival and other events to get people to come out and explore the area."

Pie Town got its name in the 1930s when some enterprising local residents started making pies to sell to ranchers driving livestock along old Highway 60 en route to railroad stockyards in Magdalena.

"They made pies from dried fruits and even pinto beans, and it just kept growing until the postmaster petitioned for the name of Pie Town," Akin said. "The pie festival started in 1980 as a community get-together to bake pies. It's evolved into a real family-oriented annual tradition with pie baking, pie eating, and fun and games for kids."

More than 1,500 people attended last year, including visitors from New Mexico and surrounding states, Akin said.

The festival includes separate pie-eating contests for youth and adults. "Contestants hold their hands behind their backs while helpers shove pie in their face," Selbee said. "Those poor guys with beards and mustaches look pretty bad afterwards."

A pie-baking contest offers cash prizes that range from $25 to $100 dollars. Children can compete in egg tosses and a toad race. Both kids and adults can participate in a fun run for T-shirts and certificates for free slices of pie. "All runners get a ribbon that says 'I Ran for Pie,'" Akin said.

Vendors from Catron County will sell arts, crafts, food and, of course, hundreds of pies. Fiddlers will play country music throughout the day, with a dance from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Akin said.

REDTT provided $1,750 to pay for portable toilets and build a Pie Town Web site that will promote the festival and other area attractions, Selbee said. REDTT also provided hospitality training for local residents.

Festival promotion is part of REDTT's strategy to build tourism throughout Catron County, which joined the REDTT program in 2002. REDTT, which is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and coordinated by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, offers technical assistance, training and grants to 17 New Mexico counties to encourage tourism in rural communities. REDTT funds help set up local tourism councils to identify and market a region's tourism assets.

REDTT helps the Catron County tourism council erect signs highlighting local attractions, develop brochures and Web sites, and increase advertising in nearby drive markets in Arizona and West Texas, Selbee said.

The Gila National Forest, located mostly in Catron County, already draws many tourists. Each year, 45,000 people visit the Catwalk National Recreation Trail-a breathtaking, elevated metal walkway that winds along the cliffs of White Water Canyon about 30 minutes south of Reserve near Glenwood.

"We have rugged mountains, clean fresh air, hiking, rockhounding and fantastic scenic views," said Max Lee Kiehne, co-owner of the Rode Inn Motel in Reserve.

REDTT has provided technical assistance to Kiehne and other local businesspeople who are spearheading a project to build a first-ever museum and memorial for Elfego Baca, a famous Hispanic lawman who single handedly fought 80 cowboys in 1884. The project received $150,000 from the state Legislature to purchase land in Reserve where the gunfight occurred and begin building a museum.

"We want Elfego baca to become a magnet for tourism in Reserve like Billy the Kid in Lincoln and UFOs in Roswell," Kiehne said. "The Baca project can increase tourism for everybody in Catron County."

Misty Riegel, president of the Glenwood Chamber of Commerce and a tourism council member, said REDTT is helping unite local communities. "We need to work together," Riegel said. "People just love to visit small towns like ours. We need to build on that by promoting events like Pie Town's pie festival."

The festival begins at 9 a.m. For more information, call (505) 772-2525.