- Historic Sites
The last homesteading community, a Depression-era experiment—and a selection of the rare color photographs that recorded it
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
For a long time the Pueblo Plateau of west-central New Mexico has promised more than it has given. That was true as early as 1540 when conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado marched his eager army through this pinon-and-juniper country looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola—a vanity recalled on today’s map with Cibola National Forest, whose timbered slopes drop down from the 7,796-foot-high crest of the Continental Divide to the two paved lanes of U.S. 60.
Coronado was not the only one disappointed by what has since been called Catron County, New Mexico’s largest and poorest. Outlaws and prospectors and land speculators and cattle barons all found the going rough and went on to better pickings or greener pastures. Only once did the country look as if it would fill up. That was in the 1930’s, when homesteading farmers from Texas settled for a time around a wide spot in a dirt road a mile west of the Continental Divide. The spot was called Pie Town, and it was witness to the demise of one of the Republic’s most nobly conceived experiments in egalitarianism. On this high, dry land long-owned by juniper and rabbit brush, the nation’s last real homesteading movement attempted to take root.
For the better part of a century the Homestead Act of 1862 had attempted to satisfy the concept of “Land for the Landless” and Jefferson’s dream of a nation of freeholders. Its flaws were especially evident west of the hundredth meridian, where aridity was a condition of life and 160 acres was not enough to raise a good crop of grasshoppers. In 1916 passage of the Stock Raising Homestead Act belatedly recognized that Western rangeland differed from Illinois prairie by offering settlers a full section—640 acres—much to the chagrin of the Western cowmen in situ , who grazed their herds on the public domain.
Following World War I homesteaders came to the Pueblo Plateau in a trickle at first. They were almost all from Texas and most meant to raise stock on their 640 acres. But between 1930 and 1932 the trickle became a rush. Again, most were “Texies,” West Texans from the Southern Plains and Panhandle, characterized by rugged individualism, hardiness, materialism, need to master nature, love of personal freedom, and low regard for races and religions not their own.
“Come on out! This is a poor man’s country. You can get started here” is what Mrs. L. M. Bolton’s aunt and uncle wrote back to her in Lamesa, Texas, and so she “drifted down into Pie Town”—so named because pies were then being sold and prominently advertised there at a roadside restaurant-store. A tall, big-boned woman whose complexion looks daily scrubbrushed, Mrs. Bolton was a farmer’s wife, a clerk in the Pie Town store, the operator of her own rock shop. “Don’t miss Texas a-tall,” she says with a kind of Baptist firmness as her fork lifts from a plate of beans and weenies and cornbread being served at the Magdalena Senior Citizens luncheon. “I like the trees and meadows and rocks here. ” Here is not quite Pie Town, however. “The altitude got too high,” she says, then corrects herself. “Well, it didn’t get any higher, but I got to where I couldn’t stand it, so my husband and I had to come down a couple thousand feet.” Several other Pie Town old-timers have had to come down to resettle in Magdalena and Socorro, the eastward towns on Pie Town’s U.S. 60 lifeline, because of heart and respiratory ailments.
Before the winds of ’34 and ’35 lifted the topsoil of five states and spread it through the skies of half the nation, politicians and agronomists knew land abuse and erosion were critical national problems. But the pall that obscured the heavens facilitated quick passage of remedial New Deal legislation. In June of 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, a complex and far-reaching law which in theory gave the Department of Interior absolute control over the Western rangelands of the public domain and in practice withdrew, with some exceptions, land from homesteading.
A second measure altering federal land-use policies came in 1935 with the Soil Conservation Act—an overdue ordinance that paid farmers to retire land undergoing ruin and put it into the soil bank. The government check, of course, went to the landowner—thus dispossessing the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the Dust Bowl, who were destined to join up with Steinbeck’s California-bound Joads.
Some going west went via U.S. 60, which wasn’t paved until 1957 and never rivaled its northern neighbor, Route 66, as the romantic road of Western migration. For most Dust Bowlers choosing this less traveled path to California, Pie Town was meant to be but a way stop. That was the case with Byron K. Baldwin when he left Paducah, Texas, in the spring of 1935 with heart trouble and few prospects. His daughter, Mrs. Lewis S. West, recalls how on the morning they left, five of their chickens suffocated on Texas dust; then, on May 17, their first night in Pie Town, ten more of their brood froze to death in the mountain cold. Baldwin was too sick to go on, so with his wife and five children he settled into a cabin that was, in the mode of the day, little more than a half-dugout fashioned of pinon logs. In time he got himself a “piece of ground” and went into the venture which kept other homesteaders busy if not well fed for a time—raising pinto beans and a variety of local maize prized for the quality of cornmeal it makes.