The town of Tornillo derives its name from the Spanish word for screw-bean bush, a hardy firewood once prevalent in the area. Efforts to establish this site as a major agricultural center began when the United States Reclamation Service announced plans to build dam and reservoir projects on the Rio Grande. The Tornillo Townsite Company, founded by an El Paso investment firm, mapped the townsite in 1909, and the Tornillo Post Office was established the same year.
After the Elephant Butte project north of El Paso was completed, agricultural speculation in the area increased. In about 1917, three leading agriculturists, J.B. Dale, Will T. Owen, and Louis J. Ivey, planted 600 acres of cotton in Tornillo. They harvested a successful crop and built the town's first cotton gin. Other farmers and businessmen, attracted by their success, settled here and by the late 1920s, Tornillo boasted several corporations, packing plants, and a cattle feeding operation, as well as several stores and a modern school system.
The town's economy suffered in the Great Depression of the 1930s and never fully revived. Urban growth in nearby El Paso contributed to the decline of the settlement. Tornillo stands today as a symbol of early commercial development in El Paso County.