Russell Lee captured this image of the Pie Town Café in June 1940. More than half a century later, Pie Town is still renowned for its pies.
Photos courtesy Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection

The aromas from the café’s kitchen filled the room and I couldn’t help but think the single page, typewritten menu did not do the whiffs justice.

“Is the green chile apple pie made with piñon nuts?” I asked, handing the white paper menu back to the waitress.

“It is,” she replied, interpreting my question and gesture for my order which she wrote on her pad before tearing it off and handing it to the cook on the other side of the kitchen doorway.

The roadside cafe and the adjacent gift shop were the only establishments open along this desolate stretch of US Highway 60. My road map denotes this as the spot where the road crosses the Continental Divide.

But I would come to discover this place is more than an invisible demarcation line or a geographic crossroad on a map; this wide spot in the road, where the tree line breaks, is more than a dot on a map. Here sits a small settlement on the edge of the world: Pie Town.

Its early settlers were miners and ranchers who came a century ago. There were no silver or gold riches to be found here, but the land agreed with the ranchers; they felt welcomed by the pervasive quiet and the gentle winds that caressed the juniper and piñon pines.

Testimony to both the allure and challenge of subsisting on this begrudging New Mexico highland can be found in the gray mist of a spring morn, the scorching heat of summer, crisp colors of fall, blizzards of winter.

According to my waitress, there are several stories as to how Pie Town came to be. Dating back 100 years to its founding in 1922, this spot has always been synonymous with pie.

The most accepted story is that after serving in World War I, a miner named Clyde Norman filed a gold and silver mining claim here: the Hound Pup Lode.

The claim was a dog. But Norman stuck around and built a rough-hewn log and mud shack on an unpaved stretch of the so-called Coast-to-Coast Highway.

He opened a gas station and started serving coffee and pie to the cowboys, sheepherders and truckers who passed by. The long-haulers dubbed the place Pie Town.

Norman’s pies not only gave this settlement its name — they put it on the map.

The story is every bit an American original.

A decade after its founding, families fleeing the Great Depression or blown away by the Dust Bowls of Oklahoma and Texas made Pie Town their destination. Maybe it was the enticing name. Perhaps because it was one of the last opportunities to homestead.

Whatever the reason, this became their life’s crossroad and is where a few hundred souls chose to make what they hoped would be their last stand.

James Hogg arrived in 1931 from Texas to take up ranching. He later became a teacher.

George Hutton Sr. abandoned his family’s cotton farm near Maud, Okla., in 1931, to claim 80 acres eight miles northwest of Pie Town.

James and Mary Jones from Snyder, Texas, homesteaded west of town in 1932.

On the south side of the Main Street stood the town’s beanery, a curio shop, J. B. Wyeth’s taxidermy “studio,” the town cafe, and the general store of Jack A. Keele and Harmon L. Craig. Photo taken in 1940 by Russell Lee.

Joe Keele ran a general store in Dimitt, Texas. The Dust Bowl bankrupted him, and in 1933 Joe and his wife, Carrie, loaded everything they owned into the back of a 1928 Chevy pickup truck and headed west.

They reached Pie Town with six pennies remaining.

Wayne and Velma Hickey came in 1934 from Ranger, Texas. A veteran of World War I, Wayne tried his hand at ranching and opened a mercantile store.

Leslie and Beulah Thomas left Calera, Okla., in 1935 to stake a homestead claim near Pie Town. He farmed and became a rural mail carrier.

Roy McKee and his wife, Maudie Bell, were 27 when they came to Pie Town in 1936. He drove their tractor all the way from O’Donnell, Texas, pulling a wagon containing his wife, his son, Kenneth, and all their worldly possessions. The trek took five days as they putted along at 16 miles an hour.

Jack Whinery was a farm day laborer in Adrin, Texas. In 1938, he was 25 and his wife, Beatrice, was 18 when they homesteaded near Pie Town. They spent their last 30 cents on nails to build their dugout.

These homesteaders and their peers were all dirt poor.  They arrived in Pie Town virtually penniless, refugees from broken dreams.

They accepted the government’s offer of land and in return they promised to fence it, build a house and dig a well within six months. Together they built a community.

They worshipped and pushed plows together. At night they played 42, a Texas version of dominoes.

Some managed to eke out a living farming dust. But the 90-day growing season at 8,000 feet made dryland farming difficult.

They lived in primitive dugout cellars covered with piñon poles and a half-foot of dirt. Soon enough, more than 900 gelatin silver prints and Kodachrome color photographs with accompanying captions would freeze their narratives, capturing in an instant and defining their poverty, struggles and aspirations.

A young man named Russell Lee came to town in the summer of 1940. Lee was part of a team of photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration to roam the nation and document the Great Depression. The aim was to show the plight of farmers, migrants, sharecroppers, homesteaders, and the poor in general — and in the process provide visual justification and document the progress of FDR’s New Deal.

When Lee arrived in Pie Town, its main street bustled.

About 250 families called the surrounding area home. Most lived simply. There was no electricity, phone service or running water, no doctors or dentists.

Deprivation was all these Pie Towners had ever known. Lee admired their determination, and in turn they welcomed his offer to make known what they had accomplished in the face of withering hardship.

In addition to Clyde Norman’s cafe and gas station, the village offered a three-room hotel, post office, bar, a mercantile store, curio shop, pinto bean warehouse, elementary school and a few other establishments.

Lee set up shop in the Pie Town Hotel, a sturdy log building. Rooms had only a bed, wash basin, table and chair. Lee hung a blanket over a window to create a makeshift darkroom.

The hotel was owned by Harmon Craig, a redheaded prospector and cowboy. Legend has it in 1924 he bought half-interest in the town for “one dollar of good and lawful money and other good and valuable consideration.” He was a la mode atop Pie Town’s upper crust.

Harmon had arrived in Pie Town from Jacksboro, Jack County, Texas, and married the widow Theora Baugh, promising if she stuck with him and would live on potatoes and beans like the rest of the ranchers in Catron County, they’d eventually make a little money.

He also owned the beanery. His prospects accelerated when he acquired the gas station and the town’s centerpiece, the Pie Town Cafe, from Clyde Norman in 1932.

While Harmon’s impact was evident, no one seems to know what happened to Clyde Norman.

No Lee photograph depicts the town’s founder — it seems he simply disappeared from view. In contrast, Harmon is remembered as a friend to the homesteaders, helping to get them off the highways and the government’s relief rolls. He tutored the newcomers on how to farm the stingy land.

His bean warehouse stored their crops at no cost. When things got tight, he floated them no-interest loans.

The cafe — a log building featuring five tables that sat four each — was the heart and soul of the community. There were ten stools at the counter. It was open from 5 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

Theora Craig and her two daughters served meals and continued Clyde Norman’s culinary tradition of baking pies, turning out as many as 50 a week.

A slice of pie cost 15 cents. Gasoline, 20 cents a gallon.

Ed Jones was 29 in 1932 when he accompanied his parents to Catron County. Jones went to work at the Pie Town Cafe, making its celebrated pies in a wood-fired stove. The Craigs paid him $1 a day plus meals.

A couple of years and countless pies later, the Craigs passed the rolling pin on to a Mrs. White, the next in a long-line of proprietors who owned and operated the cafe.

The café represented a period when Pie Town prospered. There was no menu. Whatever was prepared is what patrons got.

Although US 60 was nowhere near as famous as Chicago-to-LA Route 66 a hundred miles to the north, it was well-travelled. Santa Fe Trailways vans stopped six days a week. Word of the delicious Pie Town pies travelled on with them.

Such was the Pie Town Russell Lee documented: a place famous for its pies, populated by seemingly invincible folks who endured mutual hardship, helping one another build houses, plant crops, care for their sick. They made the best of what the land offered and God provided.

Lee’s photos and the captions he wrote for each, now part of a collection in the Library of Congress, tell the early story of the town’s founding and the personal narratives of those that settled here.  He captured planting, harvest and everything in between: church services, rodeo, county fair, town scenes, family dinners, all-night square dances, school days and a community festival. He showed America how the people of Pie Town lived in 1940.

But times were changing. The cafe changed hands again, Jim and Louise Stagg became the new owners. After Russell Lee left, with the onset of World War II looming, many townsfolk began to move away; some found work in the munition plants and airplane factories in cities throughout the Southwest. Others went to war, never to return.

Various newspaper accounts chronicle what came next for Pie Town and its citizenry.

Electricity came to town in 1942. In 1945 the bar burned down.

Business slowed during the war but the café persevered.

In 1950, Daisy Magee took over the cafe and Ed Jones — Pie Town’s resident baker for nearly two decades — took a job cooking in Datil, 23 miles to the east.

Several bad years of farming followed. Dry winters robbed the soil of the moisture needed for spring planting. In the summer of 1950 and 1951 the bean and corn crops withered, and dreams dried up, too. The Pie Town agricultural boom didn’t last even a generation before the climate repeated the saga that brought most homesteaders here in the first place. Beaten by the elements, most of the remaining farmers moved on, exiled from their busted dreams once more.

The cafe never recovered.

In 1952 the Pie Town Cafe closed.

Life went on in Pie Town even as the old institutions and traditions began to disappear. There was a roller-skating rink run by volunteers, Friday night high school games, a makeshift movie theater in the Farm Administration Building, and plenty of foot-stomping and toe stepping at Saturday night square dances.

But a 1957 paving project diverted Highway 60 north of Pie Town’s main drag, bringing more change. A new commercial district developed on the north side of the new road. A collection of buildings comprising gas stations, a mercantile store and a couple of cafes sprang up. Old Pie Town, the place that grew up around the fabled cafe, was 200 yards and light-years south of the new blacktop.

Pie Town acquired phone service but lost it school in 1962. The old cafe was torn down in the 1970s. Its old lot is still vacant.

The hotel, the sturdy log building where Russell Lee had his darkroom, survived into the 80s – although its last guest checked out decades before.

By 1990, a slice of pie cost 85 cents.  Gasoline was $1.22 a gallon.

The end of the 20th Century brought further change. The hardiest commercial ventures in the new Pie Town — the Sinclair, Conoco and Phillips 66 gas stations — were condemned by the Environmental Protection Agency for leaky storage tanks. Their carcasses remain.

Today, finding someone pictured in a Russell Lee photo is next to impossible – the lone exception being the 94-year-old Kathryn McKee Roberts.

From her home on a mesa overlooking Pie Town, Roberts chronicled its history in her book, “From the Top of the Mountain,” published in 1990. The nonagenarian, who still drives a car, was 13 when Lee snapped her picture singing with classmates from the stage in the Farm Bureau building that doubled as the school.

The Pie Town Russell Lee documented with dugouts and the log structures that housed its families has been reclaimed by nature. Absent his photos, the stories behind his images would have faded into obscurity, too.

Still, Pie Town’s love affair with pie endures. The weathered hand-painted “Welcome to Pie Town” sign at the city limits depicts three cream pies. But one of the town’s three pie shops didn’t reopen after pandemic indoor dining restrictions were lifted in 2021 — leaving but two cafes that make good homemade pies — iff’n you get there early.

The café’s walls are decorated with reprints of Russell Lee’s photos. Between bites of pie I stare in amazement at how portraits of yesterday’s struggles is today’s art.

Sarah Chavez, the latest guardian of the town’s pie tradition, joined me at my table. From her four-table café in the old Sinclair gas station, Chavez serves pie by the slice to the tourists who still make the pilgrimage to this wide spot in the road at the top of the mountain.

“We serve about 100 slices a day,” she shares. “Plus whole pies to go.”

Next door to the café, Chavez operates a vintage shop located in the gas station’s old garage. Lee’s photos, enlarged and faded, ring the top half of its walls. Beneath the antiques and curios for sale on makeshift tables is a collection of old rolling pins sitting in a basket on the floor.

After 100 years, that’s all that remains along this stretch of the Coast-to-Coast Highway — though since my visit Chavez has expanded her pie operation, moving her café into the nearby Pie-o-neer building with plans to renovate the old Conoco station to house the vintage shop.

The Pie Festival that attracted a thousand or more people every September since 1980 was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. New signs went up this Spring announcing its return on September 10, 2022 to mark the town’s centennial.

Most of the Pie Town Café’s original pie recipes are known to but a few.  Those that have been shared are difficult to replicate — like the sweet and spicy New Mexico Apple Pie that I ordered on my visit.  Over the years, this signature pie recipe, laced with the abundant New Mexican green chiles and the elusive piñon nuts, has found its way into the occasional cookbook. Still, it never tastes as good as it does in Pie Town.

In 2022 a slice of Pie Town pie costs more than a gallon of gas: $6.50 (taxes not included).

As I paid my tab and returned to my car, I made one last mental note: The tradition that gave this place its name a century ago is still done from the heart, and done well.

Jim Arwood for the Chieftain