The Sweetest Spot

All the adoration of Pie Town has brought business, and change, to a timeless destination

Twenty years ago, there was no pie in Pie Town. Now, on any given day, you may have up to four places to choose from—and thank goodness, the proprietors say, because otherwise, any one of them would be overwhelmed and guilted out of ever taking a day off.

The change began when Kathy Knapp and her mother, Mary, passed through the town and read a sign on the door of the old Pie-O-Neer Café, making the sad proclamation that it no longer sold the town's namesake dessert. Mary declared that if Kathy would buy the place, she'd bake the pies. That partnership worked for a couple years, with Knapp dividing her time between Dallas and her career in advertising there, and the lonely retreat to a roadside café where her mother, yes, baked pies and served three meals a day, usually to locals. Then, it didn't work anymore, and Knapp had to take over the café while her mother made a doctor-prescribed move to lower elevation.

In the decades that have since passed, she's made the place her own and, in the process, become something of a celebrity chef as Pie Town, a small community in the high desert in western New Mexico, has seen increasing attention, traffic and tourism. She's had to follow through on her mother's recommendation—to buy a few magic markers, because she'd be signing a lot of autographs.

But in the back of her mind, Knapp says, she'd always wanted to do a photography project to record the "old-timers," the remaining few residents left over from early settlers of the town, population now about 60. Many of them arrived in the area after fleeing the Midwestern Dust Bowl to made a go of things as dirt farmers, living in homesteads dug into the ground. So when photographer Arthur Drooker called and asked if she would help him connect with the people and places of Pie Town, she said yes.

Drooker wasn't the first photographer to be captured by the little town, and he came with a mission of retracing the path carved by Farm Service Administration photographer Russell Lee. In the 1930s and 1940s, Lee made more than 600 images of Pie Town, more than any other single location covered by the government effort to make a photographic record of American life. In an era that saw many photographers decrying color film as lowbrow, Lee loaded up a camera with Kodachrome. The end result is a stunning sampler of color images that capture a place that has long drifted decades behind its counterparts. Visually, Pie Town of the 1930s and 1940s still had one foot in the previous century.

What Drooker's photographs reveal, as captured in his book Pie Town Revisited, published late last year by University of New Mexico Press, is a place for which that's still largely true. It's a town of unpaved roads and no stoplights, of lunch tables stocked with ranchers who walk in alone but immediately find someone with whom to reminisce, to trade turkey hunting spots, to recall that year so much snow fell that a snowmobile could simply drive over the top of the fence lines. It's a town of people who still live like they did decades ago.

But some of that is changing.

As Pie Town has been splashed across the pages of magazines, including Smithsonian, and featured on television shows—namely Bill Geist's CBS Sunday Morning and the Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and most recently, the Travel Channel's Hungrytown, USA—crowds have increased. And, at the same time, some of those old-timers have moved to lower elevations or passed away, and some of the iconic structures erected by early settlers with wood, tar paper and mud have collapsed.

"A little place like Pie Town, you think, Things don't change," Drooker says. "Things do change. I have no doubt that if I was embarking on Pie Town Revisited now, it would be a noticeably different book. The people moving into Pie Town now are retirees, people who want to get away from it all, and want to try to see if they really can make a go of being away from it all. … It's still a very small town, still geographically isolated, still requires a certain amount of grit to make a go of it."

Pie Town stakes a claim to a hillside along the Continental Divide, at nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, near the buttresses of the Sawtooth Mountains and south of the blackened lava flows of El Malpais, in Catron County, one of the least populated counties in the state. The highway is the only paved road. Locals talk about never needing to lock their doors or take the keys out of their cars, and occasionally finding a note in the kitchen from a neighbor who borrowed some sugar or eggs, the closest grocery store being 80 miles away in Socorro.

The place became known for pie when a prospector began selling apple pies from his general store. When the time came to petition for a post office, locals insisted the name Pie Town stick.

When Knapp first drove through, she says, "There was nothing. It was a ghost town."

After they reopened the Pie-O-Neer, she took pies to visitor centers around New Mexico and into neighboring states to deliver the news that once again, Pie Town had pie.

For a few years, Knapp recalls, running the café meant showing up, baking a few pies with Nita Larronde (who came on board to help after Knapp's mother left), and then the two of them sitting down to play dominoes. Particularly January to March, the road that runs by the front door, US Route 60, is basically dead—"in '95, '96, we could go all day without seeing a car on this road," Knapp says.

Tearing down the Pie-O-Neer's building might have been easier than keeping it, she concedes. Its history includes multiple fires under previous owners that left charred wood in the ceiling—a wood-burning stove in the dining room still provides the only heat—and minimal infrastructure that made for an unreliable water supply and an electrical system so temperamental it wouldn't tolerate plugging in more than two appliances at a time.

Locals kind of dismissed the operation early on, saying, "Give them until the first hard winter," and expecting the folks from Texas would call it quits after a few quiet and snowed-in months.

Knapp wouldn't give up on it, though she twice tried to lease the place and walk away. Each break, she says, let her return with new ideas about how to make the café work.

When an emailed tip to CBS brought the television crew to town, the producer warned Knapp to expect that after the show aired, the phone would ring off the hook, the website would crash from too much traffic and lines would form out the door.

"I thought he didn't know what he was talking about, but everything he said would come true, did," Knapp says. "I didn't think the world would find us."

But by 10:30 am on the bitterly cold morning after that Nov. 30, 2014, airdate, the parking lot was full. Knapp opened the doors to the crowd at 11 and asked who'd been there before. The answer was, no one. She asked who'd seen them on TV. And that answer: Everyone.

"You come to Pie Town not for fame and glory, but to get away from the masses," Knapp says. "It's just kind of surreal."

She has since rearranged the way the café works to accommodate the crowds and pared the restaurant down to pie, coffee and a simple lunch menu; she also adjusted the schedule to just Thursday, Friday and Saturday. She closes for those bitter cold winter months between Thanksgiving and Pi Day, March 14, deciding to draw the line at going home when the kitchen is so cold she has to thaw the dish soap in the microwave.

The stream of people, and media, allow for no bad pie days and no days she's not happy to have the doors open and talk to the people who want to meet "the pie lady."

In addition to serving slices of chocolate chess pie with red chile or pear ginger or strawberry, she tries to hand out a little history. The Pie-O-Neer is wallpapered with Russell Lee's photographs, pink and pie-covered aprons, and images of the New Mexican landscape. The café is filled with copies of spine-busted books, among them, Far from Main Street: Three Photographers in Depression-Era New Mexico, which includes Lee's photographs of the town. She puts those books in the hands of children, turning to pages with relatable images of a dinner table set with food or a dentist bracing a child back in a chair.

"I would hope that by coming to little, out-of-the-way places like this, kids will get to peek into the past," Knapp says. "I know they're going to get in the car and start thinking about what used to happen in these little towns."

What draws the parents, though, is a hope for some portion of the life they once knew.

"It's not realistic for most people to live in a town like this, but I'd like them to know it exists," Knapp says. "It's still genuinely 100 years in the past here. It's simple. It's challenging. It's not for everyone. … It's refreshing to visit an era that no longer exists most places."

One visitor observed that it's interesting that a bunch of old hippie-types can live in the middle of nowhere on pie, Knapp recounts, but adds, it's true: "We are a bunch of old hippies just surviving on pie."

The wheels aren't slowing. With the forthcoming commercial release of The Pie Lady of Pie Town, a documentary directed and produced by Santa Fe's own Jane Rosemont, along with additional television show appearances, Pie Town is likely to see still more visitors this summer. The annual pie festival, which takes place the second Saturday in September, drew more than 3,000 people last year, big enough that it's become tough to wrangle with a mostly volunteer crew. The weeks up to the festival see every freezer in town filled with piecrusts, and every oven in town is baking pies the day before.

The tour buses haven't yet arrived, Knapp says, but it's only a matter of time. More and more, her guest book shows entries not by people who happily stumbled onto a slice of pie and a serving of nostalgia on their way to somewhere else but vistiors for whom Pie Town was the destination.

"It's a good thing because you want your business to flourish," Knapp says, "but it brings an element of change you're never quite ready for."

And then, of course, there's Drooker's book, which sports Knapp's photo on the cover. When he first called Knapp looking for a local contact and introductions to some of the old-timers around town, she says, she told him, "Come quick; there aren't many left."

He did, making the first of seven trips to Pie Town within a couple months of their first phone call in 2011, and he caught both buildings and people before they were gone.

"It's almost like it went from black-and-white to color, and he was right there before it changed," Knapp says.

Most people didn't really want to be interviewed or photographed. They're private, proud, a bit reticent and disinclined to open up to pushy producers. But Drooker was different.

"He nailed the pioneer homesteading spirit, the Grapes of Wrath—he got it because he'd been fascinated by these people's lives," Knapp says.

Collectively speaking, it's a record of all of our ancestors, she says. It's all our families in those pages.

"What Arthur did is, he put us in touch with our past, and I'm grateful because a lot of it is gone," Knapp says.

Drooker dates his interest in photography—and, for that matter, the Farm Service Administration's deployment of photographers around the country, where they made some 175,000 images of rural America and the war effortto his teenage years in the 1960s and 1970s.

Only recently, after decades working in television and film, did his mind turn back to that early affection.

"I think most people, certainly a lot of people, when they turn 50, it's a time to have an involuntary life review, and I certainly had one," he tells SFR in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "I really had a sit-down with myself to sort of see where I was in my life, take stock and see what I wanted to do with my life in the time that I had left, and one of the questions I asked myself is, what makes me happy? Interestingly or oddly, working in television at thattime did not make the list."

What did, however, was that persistent interest in photography. He decided to change the balance.

"Instead of being a guy who worked, worked, worked in television and squeezed photography in when he had a chance, I was going to do photography and squeeze television in only when I needed to," he says.

What followed were two books, American Ruins and Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas, which presented haunting images of deteriorating structures. He'd never been happier. He then returned to the ambitions of his teenage years and to a promise he'd made to himself: to someday go where a Farm Service Administration photographer had been. He'd had no specific place in mind, until Lee's images of Pie Town surfaced while he was working on the film Seabiscuit in 2002.

"He's photographing these homesteaders who escaped the Dust Bowl and resettled in Pie Town, and they're living like 1800s pioneers. They're dirt farming, which is as simple as it gets," he says.

That Lee shot some images in color, which was rare at the time, made his work stand out.

"That's when I thought, Pie Town is the place I want to go," he says.

Visiting the town over the course of four years, Drooker photographed its current residents against the backdrop of their wood-sided homes and dilapidated buildings. In some, he places Lee's photographs in the landscape, so a gaggle of women and children striding past the Farm Service Bureau building in the 1940s seems to approach a row of pies cooling on a baking rack. A farmer kneels at a pile of pinto beans, the image losing its edges in the weeds just off the side of the highway, and one of the skyward eyes of the Very Large Array peeking over the top of the photo. A cowboy holds a photo of a Pie Town rodeo to his chest, the wooden beams of a corral laced behind him.

The Pie-O-Neer Café is no longer the only stop for pie in town. The Pie Town Café has changed hands, and names, in recent years, but continues to serve pie and lunch. Last year saw the opening of The Gatherin' Place, a full-service restaurant run by Janine McMurtrey and Brad Brown, and The Pie Source, which Cyndi Fowler runs out of a cabin that's been restored to look much the way it would have when a homesteading family lived in it.

The point of these multiple options is, in part, to make sure that on any given day, everyone passing through Pie Town can get pie. They're not competitive, the restaurant owners insist, instead calling around to let one another know when they're closing or when they've been busy, or even when they're running low on pie.

The Gatherin' Place started as a gift shop, McMurtrey says, but people kept coming in and asking if they sold pie. So now, she does. The restaurant stayed open all winter, a rarity in this frigid outpost.

"It is slower, but it definitely paid to keep the doors open," she says.

The publicity has brought people on the early and late ends of the season, and The Gatherin' Place intends to catch them. Just since June, they've seen visitors lured in by mention of the town in the Chicago Tribune, and people who have come all the way from Spain with Pie Town as their destination. A map of the United States on the wall, for visitors to mark where they're from, has been up for just four months and already has pins in all 50 states. The wooden doorframes people can sign have signatures from Nigeria, Madagascar, China and Switzerland.

At times, McMurtrey meets them at the door with dough on her hands, taking orders off a menu dominated by BBQ and burgers. Diners sit family style and often share the table with new acquaintances, sometimes exchanging phone numbers.

"Welcome to a time that doesn't exist anymore," says McMurtrey, who relocated with her husband six years ago from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. "I traded stiletto heels for boots and mud."

And, for that matter, 3 million people for 60.

"We knew we wanted to slow down," she says. "This was like hitting the brakes."

But it just felt right, she says. Their first winter, they weathered 32-degree-below-zero temperatures and three feet of snow. But she claims it was worth it.

"In big cities, you have acquaintances," she says. "In Pie Town, you have friends."

The Pie Source Homestead Café sits on the eastern edge of town, behind a forest of windmills. Inside the cabin, alongside an old-style washing machine and a wall hung with yellowing newspapers and magazines from World War II and rows of antique coffee cups, Fowler sells just coffee and pie—including her twist on Southwest apple pie, baked with piñón nuts and red chile.

"If everybody's closed, I'm open," Fowler says. "It used to be, if you closed, people were mad."

Asked what brings people to Pie Town, she answers simply, "What I hear from them all is, 'I want to be able to say I had pie in Pie Town.'"

Sure enough, a woman and her grandson walk in, take a seat at the one table in the dining room, sip some coffee and each indulge in a slice of pie. She says she'd driven through before and told the skeptical teenager, "I betcha we're going to find a pie place."

He appeared doubtful, until Fowler set a slice of cherry pie down in front of him.

No one wants people to leave Pie Town disappointed. But it'll be authenticity that matters, Knapp says, not the media buzz.

"The Pie Town mentality will keep you humble," she says. "You're so busy being a personality, you don't pay attention, and if I don't pay attention, it's not going to be great, and it has to be great. It's my reputation."

"There's this increased self-awareness about the town and its tourism potential, and if that continues, then it's almost like Pie Town just becomes a different version of itself," Drooker says. "In some respects, it loses or could lose a certain unvarnished, un-self-conscious sense of authenticity, and that's something personally I would keep an eye on just to see what becomes of a town as a result of all this attention that's coming to it. … If you've been there before and you go there now, you'll see some changes. Whether those changes continue, whether things develop more, I think that remains to be seen."

His advice: "You should check it out. It's a little bit of a drive, but I think you'll like it. And if you like pie, you'll love it."

Trailer for Short Documentary Film "Pie Lady of Pie Town" from Jane Rosemont on Vimeo.

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