Pie Town is a small community of about 200 people perched a couple of miles from the Continental Divide on US highway 60 in western New Mexico. At one point there was hope that this route would be part of the rush west, but development of US 66 north, through Albuquerque, left the region somewhat isolated.
The Continental Divide provides an aquatic demarcation zone, with water falling on the west draining to the Pacific and water falling on the east draining to the Gulf of Mexico. The dilemma is that little water actually falls around Pie Town. Drought is a common phenomenon in this area, with the lack of water impeding early attempts to establish farms and ranches. People living in the area have found Ancestral Puebloan and Acoma Pueblo artifacts, as well as the ruins of long-abandoned pueblos.
A Community Based on Pie
The Pie Town settlement started with a settler and a mining claim. A man named Clyde Norman staked a claim in the area in the early 1920s. His prospecting pursuits did not pan out so he opened a general store that catered to the miners and ranchers in the area. He discovered that he had a penchant for making pies, a passion he shared with family, customers and travelers. His reputation as a purveyor of pies spread throughout the region and people began to refer to the settlement as Pie Town.
When the locals petitioned for a post office in 1927 the authorities asked them to come up with a more conventional name. They refused. They were adamant that the community would be known as Pie Town or there would be no town.
At the height of the dust bowl era and depression in the 1930s, approximately 250 families lived in the area. The land in the Great Plains was barren due to prolonged drought, with storms whipping dense, brown clouds of dust across the plains. Dust bowl refugees settled in the area after abandoning their farms in neighboring states. The 1862 Homestead Act was effectively still in place, meaning new arrivals received parcels of land to farm.
Pie Town was thrived agriculturally during the 1930s, but the prosperity didn’t last for long. Persistent drought withered agricultural efforts and made grazing large herds impossible by the 1940s. The corn and pinto bean fields, which had yielded rich harvests in the 1930s, died. Many of the farmers who had moved to Pie Town to recover from the drought were forced to move again.
Russell Lee’s Depressive Era Visit
The Farm Security Administration dispatch a photographer, Russell Lee, to document ‘rural poverty’ in the 1940s. Pie Town had peaked and was beginning to decline by the time Lee arrived, though it was still an active community. Main Street looked like a Western movie set, with a Farm Bureau building, a hardware and feed store, a café and curio shop, a hotel, an elementary school, and a taxidermy business. They had a baseball team. The stagecoach stopped every day other than Sunday, with passengers’ luggage roped to the roof and a driver in uniform.
Lee shot 620 photographs in color and black and white. His iconic images capture a rural community trying to recover from the ravages of the Great Depression. The photos also capture the fierce sense of community. The town functioned more as a co-operative, with everyone working together to survive.
Pie Town continued to decline throughout the 1950’s, because the drought continued unabated. Farming and ranching went from challenging to completely impossible. Pie Town’s population dwindled, though they didn’t abandon the town completely. The intrepid souls who remained eked out a living by any means they could. New homesteaders moved in. A new generation has embraced the challenge of surviving financially in an area with a strong sense of community, but few rules and fewer opportunities.
Baking to Boost Tourism
Kathy Knapp is the proprietor of Pie-O-Neer Pies and the PR pioneer who put Pie Town back on the map. She operated a B & B in the ghost town of Mogollon prior to relocating to Pie Town. When she opened the Pie-O-Neer, she embarked on a highly effective PR blitz on behalf of the community. Her shop has been featured on the CBS Morning Show and NPR and it has been written up in New Mexico Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, the New Yorker and Sunset Magazine. She was the subject of a documentary, “The Pie Lady of Pie Town.” This woman has mad skills when it comes to PR.
Pie Town is located on US 60, north of the Gila National Forest, west of the Plains of San Agustin, 2 miles west of the Continental Divide. The VLA, Continental Divide Scenic Trail and back roads to El Malpais are nearby. In addition to pie, Pie Town provides RV lodging and supplies for cyclists, equestrians, motorcyclists and hikers exploring the area.