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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I went around with “Pop” McKee. His real name is Kenneth Earl McKee. He has a mountain man’s untrimmed white beard. When I met him, his pants were held up by a length of blue cord, and the leather of his work boots seemed soft as lanolin. He had a little heh-heh caving-in-on-itself laugh. He has piercing blue eyes. He lives in a simple home not even 200 yards from where, in the early summer of 1940, a documentarian froze time in a box on a pine board elementary school stage.

Pop McKee, past 70, is one of the last surviving links to Russell Lee’s photographs. He is in many of Russell Lee’s PieTown photographs. He is that little kid, third from right, in the overalls at the PieTown community school, along with his cousin and one of his sisters. The kids of PieTown are singing on a makeshift stage. Pop is about 8.

In 1937, Pop McKee’s father—Roy McKee, who lies in the town cemetery, along with his wife, Maudie Bell—had driven a John Deere tractor from O’Donnell, Texas, toward his new farming dream, pulling a wagon with most of the family possessions. It took him about five days. Pop asked me if I wanted to go out to the old homestead. I sure did. “I guess we will then,” he said, cackling.

“Life must have been so hard,” I said, as we drove to the homestead. It was out of town a little ways.
“Yeah, but you didn’t know it,” he said.
“You never wanted a better life, an easier one?”
“Well, you didn’t know no better one. A fellow doesn’t know a better one, he won’t want one.”

At the homeplace, a swing made from an old car seat was on the porch. It was a log house chinked with mortar. Inside, the dinnerware was still in a beautiful glass cabinet. There were canned goods on a shelf. No one lived at the homeplace, but the homeplace still somehow lived.

“He had cows when he died,” Pop said of his dad, who made 90 in this life.

“Did you tend him at the end?”

“He tended himself. He died right over there, in that bed.”

All of the family was present that day, May 9, 2000. Roy McKee, having come out to PieTown so long ago, had pulled each grown child down to his face. He said something to each one. And then turned to the wall and died.

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