- 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
Faith Morley Reed, who with her husband operated the Navaho Lodge in Datil until 1937, has the perspective of a native daughter, one with deeper roots in the land: “They came with the damndest things … cows tied behind their Fords, wash tubs strapped on top, strawberry plants. …” The gray-haired woman, a direct descendant of the regionally aristocratic Morley family, laughs. “Poor damn fools! Like my husband Les used to say, ‘You couldn’t take a barrel of whiskey and a tribe of Indians and raise hell on this land! The growing season’s too short!’ ”
The depth-of-the-Depression years 1935 and 1936 were among the grimmest in the homestead country that centered on Pie Town but extended forty-five miles east and west from Datil to Quemado, and some fifty trackless miles north and south between Fence Lake and Apache Creek. For meat some homesteaders hunted deer and rabbits and porcupine, but that wasn’t enough to go around. To the rescue—and local opinion is divided on whether the rescued were any better off for it—came the Emergency Relief Administration, an ancestor of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Faith Reed describes a near riot when the government bought a lot of half-starved beeves and butchered them for distribution to the homesteaders who had wagoned in as much as thirty miles for beef quarters. “They bungled it all up, and then the head relief clown orders that instead of a quarter of beef they give them a roast or a steak!”
Conditions turned for the better in the late thirties. Good crops of high-quality pinto beans came up, and in 1937-38 the region enjoyed a memorable yield of pinon nuts. Local tradition has it that the trees bear every seven years, though the record shows spottier results. Nevertheless, in that year, taught by the Navahos how to harvest the so-called pine nuts, and assisted by them in the actual picking, the region’s settlers not only supplemented their own protein needs but also shipped thirty-seven carloads at eight dollars a hundred pounds out of the railhead at Magdalena.
If there was a focal personality to the Pie Town experiment, it was Harmon L. Craig. A redheaded Texas cowboy from Jacksboro who got himself some New Mexico highground after World War I, he had manageable ambitions and proven personal magnetism. “He cussed a lot, but he cussed nice clean cussing,” insists his widow, Theora Baugh Craig. Though ninety-two, frail, and with little appetite for her Albuquerque rest-home food, her mind remains as clear as it is honest. She admits her first husband deserted her in Texas and she then went west with her two small daughters, eventually to cook for cowboys at the W Bar Ranch. There she met Craig, and in 1924 they were married, he promising her that, if she stuck with him, “and would live on potatoes and beans like the rest of the ranchers,” they’d make a little money. Theora smiles brightly under her white thatch of hair and repeats twice: “Old H. L. Craig could make a little money. ”
Much of that money came after Craig’s acquisition of the store whose pies gave the settlement its name. Theora and her daughters continued the culinary tradition by turning out up to fifty apple, cherry, or raisin pies a day, while Craig increased his wares, put in gas pumps, and eventually had his expanding landmark house become a post office. But it is for the Depression era that H. L. Craig is best remembered. A Republican in overalls with a ranching past, he nevertheless became the friend of the new farmers. He sold and bought land at more than fair prices, loaned greenbacks when credits a fiction, tutored the rawest homesteaders on how to make harnesses out of old tires, and in 1939 erected and donated a building in which the burgeoning Farm Bureau could meet.
A hot item for discussion at Farm Bureau meetings—along with the price of beans—was how to get the country to fund the school Pie Town needed. The answer was not immediately forthcoming, and for three years the homesteaders paid what they could out of their pockets for schoolmarm Grace Lucas to teach their kids in a house that H. L. Craig built.
The passage of the mid-thirties legislation never abolished homesteading completely, nor did it stem the modest tide of Texies who continued to arrive on the Pueblo Plateau—those who thought the “guv’mint” might “change its mind ’bout homesteadin’,” or else “bought a relinquishment” on the land of an existing homesteader about to go bust. Pie Town’s Roy McKee was one of them. Rangy, bespectacled, with a face that seems both aged and ageless, he is an exception to many rules. Roy didn’t reach Pie Town until 1937. With him were his brothers James and John, out from O’Donnell, Texas, serious farmers who managed to find a chink in the Taylor Act that authorized the Department of the Interior to allow homesteading on 320 acres of designated grazing lands if they seemed better suited to agriculture. “We got good crops of beans just off winter moisture then,” Roy recalls in his gentle drawl. “Break the ground deep, harrow the stuff, and plant on May 22—why, me and my brothers had a beanery here and sacked fifteen thousand sacks of pintos in one year!”