New Mexico Town Understands the True Value of Pie : Americana: The community became a tourist spot because of its desserts. But the chief cook has closed her shop, at least temporarily, because of a 1989 traffic accident.


A slice of American tradition has disappeared--at least temporarily. Pie Town no longer has a pie shop.

Not that Emily Lerma planned it that way. She had been making Pie Town's pies--berry pies, pumpkin pies, pecan pies, apple pies--for a dozen years when she broke both legs in a traffic accident in August, 1989.

She reopened the following year, but pain from her injuries forced her to close in December, 1990. Now she lives in the little white building on U. S. 60, but the sign on the roof advertising pies is an anachronism. No pies are for sale.

"As soon as my legs get better, I'll be back in the pie business. What's Pie Town without pies?" she says.

The answer: Not much. Postmistress Lola Albin estimates about 100 people live in the Pie Town postal zone today. Main Street, a dirt road, is the original Highway 60--the "Coast-to-Coast Highway."

The newer U. S. 60 runs roughly parallel to the dirt road, about 200 yards north. There is a post office, the defunct pie shop, and a few buildings, some of them boarded up. The land is flat, and an inattentive motorist might pass through and never notice Pie Town.

Clyde Norman filed his gold and silver mining claim here in 1922 for what he called the Hound Pup Lode. As a mining venture, it was a dog.

"He never found anything," says Kathryn McKee Roberts, who grew up in Pie Town and wrote a book about it: "From the Top of the Mountain."

So Norman opened a gas station, hoping to capitalize on the traffic along the Coast-to-Coast Highway.

He bought doughnuts and pies from Datil, 10 miles to the east, to sell at his station. Then the Datil baker, Helen McLaughlin, caught on, and told him to bake his own pies.

He liked baking, and it wasn't long before truckers began calling Norman's place Pie Town. The gas station became a pie shop, and the pie shop helped found a town, 65 miles southeast of Gallup.

The town sprouted like the surrounding bean fields with the Homestead Act. In 1947, it produced 100,000 pounds of pinto beans, says Roberts' 82-year-old father, Roy McKee.

Most of the farmers are gone now, says McKee, who homesteaded half a square mile in 1937 and still lives in the log cabin where his six children grew up. He earns a modest living gathering pinon nuts.

"I guess I couldn't get enough ahead to leave," he says.

Pie Town has had at least four pie shops, although there has never been more than one at a time. Lerma and then-husband Lester Jackson bought their restaurant in 1976. They remembered it from a 1954 trip across U. S. 60.

Once tourists themselves, they became a tourist attraction.

"I have cards from England, Germany, all over Europe," Lerma says. "One time I gave this German couple some bear meat. They said, 'Wait till we get back to Germany and tell people we ate bear.' "

And then there is the town's Pie Festival, which gets bigger and bigger every year. It now features hot air balloons, fiddling competitions and, of course, pie-eating contests.

"This past one was the biggest one they've ever had--around 1,000 people," Roberts says.

Pecan pie seems to be the favorite, says Lerma's ex-husband, Jackson. He is chairman of the festival and of the Town Council. A book with recipes for 100 pies is being compiled by the women of Pie Town and will be available at this year's fair, scheduled for Sept. 12, he says.

As the most recent pie shop proprietor, his ex-wife has been the guardian of the town's cultural heritage--"and I hope to be for a long time."

She figures she has made 28,500 pies through the years, and she thinks there's more dough rolling in those arms yet.

But she is 64 years old, and the doctors said it would take five years for her legs to heal. And the only baking she can do these days is for herself and for her friends.

"I still get a lot of people stopping by asking for coffee, but I don't have pie," she says. "Maybe I'll forget to lock the door, and they come in."

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