I love all things pie. I love pies of the fruit, custard, fried, and chicken pot variety. I’ve always been partial to pie charts over bar graphs. I love the song, “American Pie,” by Don McLean. Heck, I even love Pi. So, when I heard tell about a place called Pie Town, New Mexico, I just knew that was a story I had to share.
A Slice of Life
In 1922, Clyde Norman, a WWI veteran, filed a forty-acre mining claim. He had hopes of striking it rich, but he never found enough gold or silver to place him among the “upper crust,” so to speak. Norman needed a way to make money so he decided to turn to what he loved best. Like me, Clyde Norman loved pie. He also understood that lots of other people love pie. His mining claim might not have been lucrative, but it happened to be smack-dab along the route of both US 60—the country’s first coast-to-coast highway—and a very busy cattle trail. The location was downright providential! Norman began selling pies made from dried fruit. Some folks say that he made them himself. Others say that his niece did the actual pie making. But regardless of who made them, there was no shortage of customers. The cowboys on cattle drives especially took a shine to Norman’s pies. They spread the word up and down the trail, and soon the place they dubbed “Pie Town” was a regular cattle drive stopover.
He Finally Got a Piece of the Pie
Then along comes a man named Harmon L. Craig, a fella who knew a good thing when he saw it. That’s why, in 1924, Craig paid Norman for half-interest in Pie Town. How much did it cost him? I’m glad you asked! The going rate for half of Pie Town was “one dollar of good and lawful money and other good and valuable consideration.” I have no idea what “good and valuable consideration” might have been unless it was that Craig knew where to get his hands on a supply of aluminum pie tins. But I’m guessing that’s not it. Within a few years, Craig bought out Norman’s remaining interest in Pie Town. I’m not sure what he paid for it, but I’m betting it included plenty of good and valuable consideration. Craig became the town’s most prominent citizen. His buyout made him sole proprietor of the mercantile and a café. He also came to own a gas station/garage and a pinto bean warehouse. In 1927, the citizens of Pie Town petitioned for a post office. The Postmaster General wasn’t thrilled with the name of Pie Town and wanted the locals to choose something more dignified and worthy of the U.S. Postal Service. The Pie Towners wouldn’t budge on the matter and, in the end they were victorious.
Feed Your Pie Hole
During the mid to late 1930s, Pie Town became a refuge for many Dust Bowlers who had left Oklahoma and Texas in order to feed their kids something other than dust. Harmon L. Craig helped the struggling new homesteaders get things in apple pie order. He sold land below market value and made loans that required no collateral and charged no interest. On top of that, his pinto bean warehouse provided farmers with a way to market their crops. He even taught the struggling homesteaders how to do practical things like make harnesses from old tires. In the mid-1930s, there were around 250 families residing in the greater Pie Town area. Craig continued to build the town and develop opportunities for locals, but don’t worry . . . the pies didn’t fall by the wayside. While Craig tended to the business side of life in Pie Town, his wife and daughters baked up to fifty apple, cherry or raisin pies a day.
Pie in the Sky
I was so touched by Harmon L. Craig’s kind heart that I wanted to learn more about him. Craig died in 1958, at the age of 81. With the help of the interwebs, I was able to locate an online obituary for him. Craig’s widow, Theora Baugh Craig, said, “He cussed a lot, but he cussed nice clean cussing.” Lawdy, that made me laugh! She also pointed out that when they were married in 1924, Craig promised her that if she stuck with him, “and would live on potatoes and beans like the rest of the ranchers,” they would make a little money. Theora said, “Old H.L. Craig could make a little money.”
As American as Apple Pie
Much of Pie Town’s history might have been lost and forgotten if not for the efforts of a man named Russell Lee, a photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration, which was a part of FDR’s New Deal. That New Deal gave us some great old photos! Lee arrived in Pie Town in 1940 with the task of documenting how the Depression had affected rural America. In the June 6, 1940 issue of the Magdalena News, a reporter wrote, “Mr. Lee of Dallas, Texas, is staying in Pietown, taking pictures of most anything he can find. Mr. Lee is a photographer for the United States department of agriculture. Most of the farmers are planting beans this week.” Not only did Lee provide us with photographs of daily life in 1940’s Pie Town, he provided us with COLOR photos. They are hauntingly beautiful images that are one part The Grapes of Wrath and two parts Norman Rockwell. They showed us the struggle of life in Pie Town, but they also showed us a thing or two about hope and the concept of community. In recent years, contemporary photographer took his camera and lenses to Pie Town. His photographs show what has changed and what has stayed the same. Here is a remarkable slide show from NPR, of Lee’s photos and Drucker’s photos.
Today, Pie Town, New Mexico boasts a population of fewer than 100. As you might expect, some of the residents are ranchers, but there are also a few pie makers. Businesses like Pie-O-Neer and Good Pie Café still serve up happiness by the slice. Stop by some time, and have them serve you up a slice of American history! Have a look-see at what Pie Town is like today in this video from Team America Productions. I think that you’ll be surprised to see how little it has changed from the Dust Bowl years.