The last homesteading community, a Depression-era experiment—and a selection of the rare color photographs that recorded it
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.
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!”
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.”
If science has found a mixed reception in the Catron County hinterland, art occupies a similar and perhaps more uncertain status. In the outback, a score and some miles north of Pie Town, a forest of four hundred shining stainless-steel rods rise perpendicular to the broad sweep of the turquoise sky; the needle-pointed poles, two inches in diameter, average twenty feet in height and stake out nearly a square mile of rattlesnake-infested brushland. Lightning Field is the title of the artwork. Walter de Maria of New York is the sculptor who conceived it. And the Dia Art Foundation is the sponsoring body that put up $450,000 to give it substance in the summer of 1978, when twenty-five teen-agers worked four and one-half months to erect what has been called both bold and bizarre, a metaphysical work of art by New York cognoscenti , the work of a bunch of kooks by at least one local cowpoke.
Other old-timers, probably at least a simple majority, just smile with typical Pie Town tolerance that allows a government or an individual to make a damn fool of itself or himself, if that’s what’s wanted.