- 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
The earth and skies were kind enough, off and on, back then. According to Roy, it was the ranchers “who give us fits. One feller that had three or four hundred sections tried as long as he lived to run us off. He hired guys to come here and tell us they were from Washington and give us twenty days to clear off. I told ’em we’ll be here when you come back.” One genuine investigator actually did come from Washington to check on Roy and render a verdict: “It doesn’t seem to me that you’re bothering anything.” In the end, Roy “proved up” his homestead and got title to his land in 1951.
Well before then, however, the climate had turned around, and whatever future Pie Town had in pinto beans was already past. “Some homesteaders went to war and some went to work in the California plants, but winter snows lettin’ off was the main reason they left,” says Roy as he looks wistfully over his original half-section to towering Allegros Mountain, the dominant landmark to the south. “Dollar an acre was a big price back then when a nester sold out.”
In 1950 and 1951 a severe drought finished almost all of Pie Town’s remaining bean farmers. Roy hung on till 1957. A few homesteaders became small ranchers, but Roy followed twenty years of farming with twenty years of well-digging for the ranchers, with short stints of shooting wild horses that crowded the range, harvesting pinon nuts, and taking on other tasks to survive. The gear of his trades rest in ordered readiness behind a modest, well-kept farmhouse—tack and harness, a John Deere tractor in ready-to-go condition, drill bits, parachutes to spread beneath a nutting pinon tree when it is ready to be shaken. Inside his clean and Spartan home a rack of vintage rifles, all obviously well used, command a wall. Roy is a content man with a kind word for all, including his former ranching adversaries. Yet he has a complaint. He approves the ban on poisoning meat to kill predators in the country. But he wishes the government would stop its own people from trapping them. Furriers in Albuquerque are paying $85 to $125 for a coyote pelt these days, $300 to $400 for a bobcat skin. That’s a fair livelihood for a man who wants to stay in this high country and sniff the perfume of pine and juniper and good clean dust.
Catron County’s population has dropped sharply and 11 steadily since the Depression, from more than four thousand to around two thousand now, spread over seventy-four hundred square miles. In nearly every state legislative session, a failing attempt is made to abolish the county. With 81 per cent of it federal land, there is virtually no tax base. Among other inconveniences, the county is without public transportation, has no morticians or certified public accountants, has only volunteer firefighting personnel, has no lawyers and only one doctor. What do Catron County residents do? “We make a damn point of not getting sick,” snaps Ollie Hutton, a distant neighbor of Roy McKee’s. “And we’re too damn mean to ever need a lawyer.”
One might think this remote country is safely out of the swing of events now. Not so. Both modern science and modern art have made seemingly incongruous intrusions in the last five years, to the guarded delight of some locals and the vocal dismay of others. Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students now share table and bar space with reticent cowboys at the Eagle Guest Ranch in Datil. And out on the Plains of San Augustine, a Pleistocene lake bed that a century back resembled nothing so much as Conrad Richter’s “sea of grass,” there are sprouting what look to be giant, gleaming-white mushrooms. When completed this year, the Very Large Array (VLA), as it is called, will consist of twenty-seven separate radio telescope antennae resting on double railroad tracks laid down in the shape of an enormous Y—two legs 13.0 miles long, and the third 11.8 miles long. The $78,000,000 federally funded National Science Foundation project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory will, among other inquiries, turn its network of eighty-two-foot concave dishes to “listen” for radio waves emanating from the heart of the Milky Way. A battery of computers is the controlling mind of this most sophisticated of deep-space studies, which is seeking the answers to such questions as: How did the universe originate? Will it expand forever? Collapse? Pulsate over tens of billions of years?
Certain local ranchers who have yielded up much of the VLA land through government condemnation suits (actually less than 560 total acres) are not impressed. The massive machinery spoils their views and reduces their ranches’ resale value, they maintain; and who knows what it’s doing to the cows? A more balanced view is that of a nonranching Pie Town veteran who thinks the whole idea is “a waste of money … but then it has put some beans on tables hereabouts.”