Make a Date with Route 28 — the Oñate Trail

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Church at San Miguel

For those who like to avoid the Interstates and travel the narrower, more quiet highways, New Mexico Route 28 is a lovely, relaxing trip. Begin your trek on this highway at Old Mesilla southwest of Las Cruces. The highway is east of the Rio Grande at this point, but a few miles south it crosses the great river and you are on the west side of it.

Some of the stopping and/or shopping places aren’t even listed on a New Mexico map, but if you note the distances from Old Mesilla, you won’t miss them. It is such a lovely drive, whether you stop or shop is immaterial. Being there is the pleasure. Designated as the Oñate Trail, it is part of the route Don Juan de Oñate took into New Mexico 400 years ago.

Only six miles along the scenic route, through pecan groves and alongside chile fields, you come to Stahmann’s Pecan Paradise. With its canopy of trees, it is aptly named. Deane Stahmann first planted pecan trees in his cotton fields in the early 1930s. Today Stahmann Farms has 180,000 pecan trees on 4,000 acres, making it one of the world’s largest pecan groves. A family owned business, the farm produces between 8 to 10 million pounds of pecans annually. In addition, their store has a large selection of gift baskets, specialty foods, samples of pecans, pecan confections and fine chocolates.

As you continue south, lush farms and orchards line the highway. In addition to chiles and pecans, peppers, onions, alfalfa and corn are grown here, irrigated by water from the Rio Grande. The villages of San Miguel and La Mesa are on this highway, and the lovely rock church at San Miguel is worth reflective pause.

Seventeen and one-half miles from Old Mesilla is another must-stop. Pepper Tree Farm, known as the Pepper Lovers’ Heaven at Chamberino, has everything imaginable in chile. Their gift shop has custom gift baskets, kitchen accessories, gourmet foods, decor items, ristras, clothing, jewelry and much more. They are open seven days a week.

The oldest winery in New Mexico, La Viña Winery, is just one-half mile south of the Pepper Tree Farm, on a short expanse of dirt road to the west of the highway. It is not open seven days a week, however; just Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and other days by appointment. They have wine festivals in April and October. La Viña has a tasting room serving Red Zinfandels and cold Chardonnays, and a wine and gift shop also.

Replica of an old western building at the Nutcracker Suite

At Anthony, New Mexico (Anthony, Texas is a twin city) 20 miles from Old Mesilla, turn onto Greenwood Road to the east for the Nutcracker Suite. Gadsden High School is on the west just before Greenwood Road. Signs are plentiful so you won’t miss this “village” of pecan products - and you shouldn’t.

In 1928, P. L. Wood planted fifty acres of Burkett pecan trees that are now almost 100 feet tall. These trees provide a pecan with a much richer, fuller taste than other varieties. When the Pettit family became owners Buddy Pettit planted other pecan orchards and developed a pecan called Pettit’s wonder, a larger pecan with delicious meat.

Betty Pettit’s marketing, begun in the early 1970s, was the beginning of the family run business. She bagged the nuts in small sandwich bags and took them to her friends at a beauty shop as a gift item. Her business kept growing and they opened a seasonal store in Anthony. Daughter Sandra helped there and added her own homemade fudge, a very popular item. The fudge flavors themselves have magnetic appeal: amaretto chocolate pecan, pistachio pecan, egg nog pecan, pumpkin pecan, apricot vanilla pecan, vanilla cranberry pecan and more. How can one resist?

The store was closed and moved to the 200 acre farm. Now the entire operation is known as the Nutcracker Suite. Sandra and her husband Oscar Portillo own the Candy Store, and with Betty Pettit, they own the farm. The broad graveled Nutcracker Drive leads into the replica of an old western town. As you get nearer you’ll see a sign, “Please Drive Slowly. Our squirrels don’t know one nut from another.” That sets the stage for a fun time. The wooden store fronts house a Sheriff’s office, a gunsmith, an antique car collection, a candy store, gourmet coffees, homemade fudge and pecan pies. On Saturdays there is a BBQ and covered wagon rides through the pecan groves. This “village” is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The antique car collection contains a Model T truck with “Nutcracker Suite” on its door, no doubt used for delivery many years ago. You will see many old Fords and other brands of automobiles, some, appropriately, with “Eat Pecans” license plates.

When you leave this pleasant stop, you can continue south to Santa Teresa, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas. If you want to return to Las Cruces along another quiet road, cross over the Rio Grande and go north on New Mexico highway 478.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks