Picturing Pie Town, USA, In 1940 And Again Today

Dec 6, 2012
Originally published on December 6, 2012 12:44 pm

The Depression is something we usually see in black and white. But there do exist some remarkable color photos from the era, many of which you can see on Flickr, taken by photographers who were hired to document the country in the 1930s and '40s.

Contemporary photographer Arthur Drooker remembers seeing those photos for the first time as a teenager and it "was really a revelation," he says on the phone. "The images that made the biggest impact on me were Russell Lee's images of Pie Town."

Russell Lee was one of more than a dozen itinerant photographers working for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal project to redress rural poverty. He was driving across a remote part of New Mexico with his wife, according to Drooker, and stopped randomly in Pie Town to get something to eat. Who wouldn't?

Lee was there in 1940. And about seven decades later, Drooker decided to visit Pie Town to photograph what remained and what had changed. And, of course, to see if the place lived up to its name.

In Lee's day, Pie Town had already peaked in population. The Homestead Act, first enacted in 1862 to encourage westward expansion, was effectively still in place, although many of the pioneering homesteaders had given up and moved to larger towns. By the time Lee arrived, Drooker says, "there were essentially 200 families in the Pie Town area." Today, the population of Pie Town lingers at about 70 people.

"It does require good old American rugged individualism to make it there," says Drooker, a documentary producer-writer, who started re-photographing Pie Town in 2011. "You could go for days without seeing your neighbor."

How did the town get that name, and is pie really a thing there? According to Drooker, one of the earliest settlers opened a general store to subsidize a mining operation. It became a popular pit stop, well-known for its pies. The area was unofficially dubbed "Pie Town" by locals, and when it came time to apply for a post office, the rest is history.

The pie tradition was lost over the years. When Kathy Knapp, owner of the Pie-O-Neer Cafe, settled there in the 1990s, "there was no pie to be found," Drooker says. In recent years, the town has unearthed its roots, and now holds a yearly pie festival, a big draw for the region.

Who inhabits Pie Town? It's a mix of people, says Drooker; some are ranchers, some are there for drilling, some do odd jobs, and others are there to escape. And some are descendants of the Pie Town residents Russell Lee originally photographed. "These are really flinty people," he says. "There's a grit to them."

Drooker set out with two goals: to see FSA photography anew, and to explore the pioneer spirit that had intrigued Russell Lee.

"I met a cross-section of people who, I think, answer that question."

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