Savoring Pie Town

Sixty-five years after Russell Lee photographed New Mexico homesteaders coping with the Depression, a Lee admirer visits the town for a fresh slice of life

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The name alone would make a stomach-growling man wish to get up and go there: PieTown. And then too, there are the old photographs—those moving gelatin-silver prints, and the equally beautiful ones made in Kodachrome color, six and a half decades ago, at the heel of the Depression, on the eve of a global war, by a gifted, itinerant, government, documentary photographer working on behalf of FDR’s New Deal. His name was Russell Lee. His Pie Town images—and there are something like 600 of them preserved in the archives of the Library of Congress—portrayed this little clot of high-mountain-desert New Mexico humanity in all of its redemptive, communal, hard-won glory. Many were published last year in Bound for Glory, Americain Color 1939-43. But let’s get back to pie for a minute.

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“Is there a particular kind you like?” Peggy Rawl, coowner of PieTown’s Daily Pie Café, had asked sweetly on the phone, when I was still two-thirds of a continent away. There was clatter and much talk in the background. I’d forgotten about the time difference between the East Coast and the Southwest and had called at an inopportune hour: lunchtime on a Saturday. But the chief confectioner was willing to take time out to ask what my favorite pie was so that she could have one ready when I got there.

Having known about PieTown for many years, I was itching to go. You’ll find it on most maps, in west-central New Mexico, in CatronCounty. The way you get there is via U.S. 60. There’s almost no other way, unless you own a helicopter. Back when Russell Lee of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) went to Pie Town, U.S. 60—nowhere near as celebrated a highway as its more northerly New Mexico neighbor, Route 66, on which you got your kicks—called itself the “ocean to ocean” highway. Big stretches weren’t even paved. Late last summer, when I made the trek, the road was paved just fine, but it was still an extremely lonesome two lane ribbon of asphalt. We’ve long licked the idea of distance and remoteness in America, and yet there remain places and roads like PieTown and U.S. 60. They sit yet back beyond the moon, or at least they feel that way, and this, too, explains part of their beckoning.

When I saw my first road sign for PieTown outside a New Mexico town called Socorro (by New Mexico standards, Socorro would count as a city), I found myself getting cranky and strangely elevated. This was because I knew I still had more than an hour to go. It was the psychic power of pie, apparently. Again, I hadn’t planned things quite right—I’d left civilization, which is to say Albuquerque—without properly filling my stomach for the three-hour haul. I was muttering things like, They better damn well have some pie left when I get there. The billboard at Socorro, in bold letters, proclaimed: HOME COOKING ON THE GREAT DIVIDE. PIE TOWNUSA. I drove on with some real resolve.

Continental Divide: this is another aspect of PieTown’s strange gravitational pull, or so I have become convinced. People want to go see it, taste it, at least in part, because it sits right on the Continental Divide, at just under 8,000 feet. PieTown, on the Great Divide—it sounds like a Woody Guthrie lyric. Something there is in our atavistic frontier self that hankers to stand on a spot in America, an invisible demarcation line, where the waters start to run in different directions toward different oceans. Never mind that you’re never going to see much flowing water in PieTown. Water, or, more accurately, its lack, has much to do with PieTown’s history.

The place was built up, principally, by Dust Bowlers of the mid- and late 1930s. They were refugees from their busted dreams in Oklahoma and West Texas. A little cooperative, Thoreauvian dream of self-reliance flowered 70 and 80 years ago, on this red earth, amid these ponderosa pines and junipers and piñon and rattlesnakes. The town had been around as a settlement since at least the early 1920s, started, or so the legend goes, by a man named Norman who’d filed a mining claim and opened a general store and enjoyed baking pies, rolling his own dough, making them from scratch. He’d serve them to family and travelers. Mr. Norman’s pies were such a hit that everybody began calling the crossroads PieTown. Around 1927, the locals petitioned for a post office. The authorities were said to have wanted a more conventional name. The Pie Towners said it would be PieTown or no town.

In the mid-’30s, something like 250 families lived in the surrounding area, most of them in exile from native ground gone arid. By the time Russell Lee arrived, in the company of his wife, Jean, and with a trunk full of cameras and a suitcase full of flashbulbs, the town with the arresting name boasted a Farm Bureau building, a hardware and feed store, a café and curio shop, a hotel, a baseball team, an elementary school, a taxidermy business. There was a real Main Street that looked a little like a movie set out of the Old West. Daily, except Sunday, the stagecoach came through, operated by Santa Fe Trail Stages, with a uniformed driver and with the passengers’ luggage roped to the roof of a big sedan or woody station wagon.

Lee came to PieTown as part of an FSA project to document how the Depression had ravaged rural America. Or as the Magdalena News put it in its issue of June 6, 1940: “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.”

Were Lee’s photographs propagandistic, serving the aims of an administration back in Washington bent on getting New Deal relief legislation through Congress and accepted by the American people? Of course. That was part and parcel of the mission of the FSA/OWI documentary project in the first place. (OWI stands for Office of War Information: by the early ’40s, the focus of the work had shifted from a recovering rural America to an entire nation girding for war.) But with good reason, many of the project’s images, like the names of some of those who produced them—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee—have entered American cultural myth. The results of their collaborative work—approximately 164,000 FSA/OWI prints and negatives—are there in drawer after drawer of file cabinets at the Library of Congress in a room I have visited many times. (Most of the pictures are now also on-line at Taken together, those images have helped define who we are as a people, or who we’d like to think we are; they amount to a kind of Movietone newsreel looping through our heads.

Lee took plenty of pictures in PieTown of the deprived living conditions; he showed how hard it all was. His pictures weren’t telling lies. And yet his pictures of people like the Caudills almost made you forget the deprived living conditions, forgive them, because the sense of the other—the shared food and good times at all-day community church sings—was so powerfully rendered. In front of Lee’s camera, the Caudills’ lives seemed to narrate the received American story of pluck and determination.

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