Pie-O-Neer Pies, putting the pie in Pie Town

Pie Town has been on our radar since we moved to New Mexico in 2004, but at three-and-a-half hours from Santa Fe, it’s a bit too far for a day trip. Ever since we met Kathy Knapp and fell in love with her at an event promoting The Pie Lady of Pie Town, Santa Fean Jane Rosemont’s award-winning short documentary about Knapp and Pie-O-Neer Pies, we’ve wanted to get there for some of her homemade pie. My birthday which was last Saturday. We have a tradition of taking a jaunt each year to celebrate. on. Nothing was jelling and the on Friday, in a flash I knew what I wanted to do: get a birthday piece of pie at Pie-O-Neer Pies. I message Kathy on Facebook to let her know we were headed her way and made my birthday pie request: chocolate pecan.

Heading to Pie Town

View of the VLA shot from the moving car photo Billie Frank

View of the VLA shot from the moving car photo Billie Frank

We awoke early Saturday morning so we could arrive in Pie Town around lunch time. As Pie-O-Neer Pies no longer serves food, we stopped for sandwiches before leaving Santa Fe. It was an uneventful journey, I-25 to Socorro about an hour south of Albuquerque and then U.S. 60 for the rest of the way. The landscape for much of the ride is stark and unmemorable. That changes just west of the VLA (Very Large Array) about 45 minutes west of Socorro. If you haven’t been there (we have) it’s well worth taking the time to stop. West of here the road starts going through the scenic Saw Tooth Mountains on the way to the Continental Divide. Pie Town is a mile west of the Divide.

Vintage windmills at the now-closed Dan Cyn's Windmill Museum photo Billie Frank

Vintage windmills at the now-closed Dan Cyn’s Windmill Museum photo Billie Frank

Coming into Pie Town we saw a bunch of vintage windmills at a now-closed windmill museum and former pie café and had to stop and take a few photos before continuing down the road to Pie-O-Neer Pies. We were, after all these years of anticipation, there.

How Pie Town got its name

How Pie Town got its name -sign at Pie-O-Neer Pies, photo Steve Collins

How Pie Town got its name -sign at Pie-O-Neer Pies, photo Steve Collins

There are a few stories about how Pie Town became Pie Town. Most agree that a prospector named Clyde Norman arrived in the 1920s looking for gold. His 40-acre claim comprised what became Pie Town. He didn’t find any gold. Needing a way to earn money he opened a gas station serving travelers on U.S. 60, the country’s first coast to coast highway opened in 1922. He carried groceries and eventually added fresh-baked pies. In 1924, Norman sold half his interest in the town to Harmon L. Craig who became the town’s sole owner when Norman returned to Texas. During the Dust Bowl years people from Texas and Oklahoma settled in Pie Town. In 19 small town asked for their own post office in 1927; residents wanted the town to be called Pie Town and met with government resistance. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “The Pie Towners said it would be PieTown or no to town.” They won.

A short history of Pie-0-Neer Pies

Pie-O-Neer Pies, Pie Town, NM, photo Steve Collins

Pie-O-Neer Pies, Pie Town, NM, photo Steve Collins

When Kathy Knapp and her family drove through Pie Town in 1995 there weren’t any pies to be found. They spotted a sign on the closed Thunderbird Trading Post, a derelict building: “There used to be pie in Pie Town, but there ain’t no more — 4 SALE.” Knapp’s mother, Mary, was an experienced pie baker. She’d baked pies with her mother at the Cozy Corner Café in Rochelle, Illinois. Mary saw a need to put the pie back in Pie Town. Kathy, who lived in Dallas at the time, bought the café for her mother who moved to Pie Town, began feeding locals and travelers and most importantly, started baking pies. Two years later when she was diagnosed with emphysema and needed to move to a place at lower altitude (Pie Town is almost 8,000 feet above sea level), she reluctantly left the town she’d come to love. This left Kathy with a pie place and no one to run it. She tried hiring people but it didn’t work. She left her life in Dallas and moved to Pie Town and took over. Her pie-baking skills were almost nonexistent; she learned how to make pies through trial and error. She mastered the craft! Today she is indeed the Pie Lady of Pie Town.

Coming home to Pie-O-Neer Pies

Entering the Pie-O-Neer is like coming home. Kathy, Stanley King (who she calls her “partner in all things”) or one of the friendly staff will great you and get you started on your pie adventure. If you saw Pie-O-Neer on CBS Sunday Morning (it’s airing created a business boom and a few more pie shops in Pie Town) or saw the Pie Lady of Pie Town, you may do a double-take; something has changed. When Kathy decided to give up the food portion of the business and concentrate on all pies, all the time, the original counter was replaced with the Pie Bar, a cafeteria-style buffet featuring between 10 and 20 varieties of pie at any given time. The missing counter aside, the interior is homey.

An assortment of pies on the Pie Bar at Pie-O-Neer Pies , photo Steve Collins

An assortment of pies on the Pie Bar at Pie-O-Neer Pies , photo/Steve Collins

Mismatched tables and chairs are scattered around the room, there’s a wood burning stove for really cold days and an old wringer washer. The walls are covered in art photos and historic ones as well; just outside the bathroom, the wall is covered with clips of media coverage of Pie Town and Pie-O-Neer from a host of publications including Sunset Magazine, Travel + Leisure, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and New Mexico Magazine. It’s also been featured on many websites including Santa Fe Travelers. Besides the CBS show, Pie town and/or Kathy have been on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and the Travel Channel’s Hungrytown.

The Wall of Fame at Pie-O-Neer Pies, photo Billie Frank

The Wall of Fame at Pie-O-Neer Pies, photo Billie Frank

With 15 to 20 different pies to choose from choosing a piece of pie can be a daunting task with 15 to 20 different pies to choose from. Peruse all the offerings, each with its name on a tag in front of it. Want to taste several different ones? Go with a few people and trade bites. If you are a pie purist and will only eat apple, blueberry or pecan, call the day before you come or early in the day of your visit and request your fave. If Kathy has the time and the ingredients she’ll make it and save you a slice or you can order an entire pie and take it home with you or buy one of their Take and Bake Pies and bake it at home. When asked how many pies are in the Pie-o-Neer’s repertory, Kathy says they have name tags for over 70 but she estimates it’s closer to 100.

Steve chose the Peach,, Plum, ,Almond Crumb, photo Billie Frank

Steve chose the Peach,, Plum, ,Almond Crumb, photo/Billie Frank

That’s a LOT of pie! And they keep coming up with new ones. Pies emerge from the oven throughout the day, “I tell people It’s like LAX,“ Kathy quipped in a note to me, “a new one arrives at the gate every few minutes!” Once you choose your pie, proceed to the register. Let the cashier know if you want your pie a la mode and he/she will oblige. Want a drink to go with your piece of pie or “☮ of π” as they jokingly refer to it on the tee-shirts they offer for sale? Tell the cashier and then head to the a do-it-yourself drink station where you’ll find coffee, tea, hot chocolate, milk or lemonade.

Kathy Knapp with a fresh out of the oven pie at Pie-O-Neer Pies, photo Billie Frank

Kathy Knapp with a fresh out of the oven pie at Pie-O-Neer Pies, photo/Billie Frank

We loved seeing Kathy in action. She really knows how to work a room and she made my birthday. The lights went out - she acted like there was a power outage and then appeared from the back with my requested piece of chocolate pecan pie with a candle in it. She got everyone in the place singing Happy Birthday. She presented me with a tiara that said “Happy New Year,” and quipped, “After all, it is a new year for you.” Filled with pie and good feelings it was time to get back on the road.

Leaving Pie Town

Sacred Heart Catholic Church Quemado, NM, photo Billie Frank

Sacred Heart Catholic Church Quemado, NM, photo/Billie Frank

We planned to return via El Malpais National Monument and Stan sent us off with a map and suggestions for a few places to check out there. He also suggested that we drive by the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array), large dish down a dirt road not far off the highway. We took a drive through the town and saw two additional pie shops. Kathy noted that they open on different days and that Pie Town gets enough traffic to support them all. We then headed west on U.S. 60 to Quemado where we discovered a charming adobe church as we turned onto NM 36. Stay on that until NM 117 goes off to the right. Just follow the signs to Grants and you’ll get to El Malpais.

La Vantana at El Malpais National Monument photo Billie Frank

La Vantana at El Malpais National Monument photo/Billie Frank

El Malpais is composed by black lava formations, lava tubes and caves that can be explored with a permit. Overseeing it all is a bank of beautiful sandstone cliffs with stunning rock formations. Stop at the pullout on the east side of the road and look for La Ventana, an arch in the high cliff. We also detoured to the Sandstone Bluffs accessed via a dirt road on the west side of the highway before heading back to Santa Fe.

Sandstone Bluffs at El Malpais, photo Steve Collins

Sandstone Bluffs at El Malpais, photo/Steve Collins

Have you been to the Very Large Array, Pie Town, Quamado or El Malpais National Monument?

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