December 28 2014
Pie Town sits along a lonely stretch of US Route 60, about 80 miles from any modern town of note. Like most remote western towns along neglected old pre-Interstate routes, it has dwindled over the years into a no-horse town. A few faded buildings still stand, some flanked by rusted out cars and overgrown with prairie grass and mullein. There’s no petrol station, no inn, not even a stop light. To pass through today is an entirely unremarkable experience.
Still, it remains a site of recondite pilgrimage for some, thanks to FSA photographer Russell Lee’s evocative 1940s photographs. Lee spent months documenting the hardy frontier town’s heyday in both black and white and vibrant chrome. And just as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother became the go-to symbol of Depression-era poverty and rootlessness, Lee’s Pie Town series became its counterpoint: an emblem of folksy, up-by-the-bootstraps American abundance. Pie Towners were sturdy, hard-working and seemed to take joyous respite in food, community and family.
The town has been the site of pie making off and on since before the time of Lee’s photographs—most accounts say it started in the 1920s. The town ebbed and flowed, growing and shrinking through the 20th century, but by the 90s had been virtually abandoned. For years, scientists and tourists passing by en route to and from the nearby Very Large Array radio observatory (also very much worth a visit) were among the only visitors to town.
Kathy Knapp and her mother rolled through in the mid-1990s—herself a fine-art photographer by training—and partly because of the mystique of the place, the two decided against all odds to buy up an old building and set up shop. Though she started off not knowing the first thing about pie making, it wasn’t long before she was running the show. Two decades on, she remains the head of Pie-o-neer, a cozy nook and gallery serving up, you guessed it, pie. The best pie, in fact. Kathy does all varieties, from classics like blueberry, sweet potato, pumpkin and pecan to more experimental varieties such as the house special, New Mexico Apple, which makes the strangely delicious addition of green chile and piñon nuts to the American standard.
Among the people cheerfully cooking up pies in the Pie-o-neer kitchen was a “world class astronomer” who spoke several languages and good from big Santa Fe names lined the walls. And even on the cold winter’s day we found ourselves in town, a number of motorists driving through from as far away as Dallas and San Francisco had strayed hours off course for a slice of pie.
Seeing it out the window adjacent to Pie-o-neer’s big stove, Kathy went wild for the rented Camaro we rolled up in. We got to talking over a slice about her escapades earlier this year in a similar—but cherry red—car when she was in L.A. for a first screening of a new documentary about her exceptional life, The Pie Lady of Pie Town. The film is slated for wide release in early 2015 and has should bring Kathy’s adopted hometown to a whole new audience as well as ensure Pie Town’s place as the world’s ultimate pie pilgrimage.
1940s chromes from Farm Security Administration archives.