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NM loses an institution: Pie Lady moving on, Pie-O-Neer closed

Pie Town resident Kathy Knapp had run the Pie-O-Neer restaurant for more than 20 years. Kathy is a local celebrity who has been featured in the show “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Kathy Knapp of the Pie-O-Neer has been called, appropriately enough, The Pie Lady of Pie Town.

Her announcement last week that she was closing the venerable Pie-O-Neer on Highway 60 came as a shock to her countless friends, fans, and hundreds, if not thousands, who would travel to tiny Pie Town for a slice of one of her pies.

“When we opened on March 14 (Pi Day) of this year there was no way we could have known that it would be our first and last day of the season,” Knapp said. “After Pi Day I honestly thought it would blow over in a couple of weeks. And in that couple of weeks, the world literally changed.”

The pandemic changed everything.

“Now, as we all begin to come out of lockdown determined to find our new normal, it’s obvious that not every business will be able to adapt,” she added. “I was writing in my journal this morning, and I said I can’t even come up with a word to describe what it’s been like making the public announcement that we’d be closing. You can’t mourn it as if someone died, but that’s how I feel. This was not an easy decision.

“We lived there and we loved it, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

She said someone suggested keeping the cafe open by providing delivery and curbside service.

“First, there is not enough daily traffic to make it feasible. Most of our customers come from other states,” she said, “And second, Pie Town has no curbs.”

The Pie-O-Neer and Knapp first gained national exposure with a special on The Food Network’s “The Best Of New Mexico” in 1998, and in Sunset Magazine in 2001.

In the intervening years, Knapp’s pie shop has been the subject of countless articles, a dozen television features, a comedy short, and a song by country singer Jimmy Wayne called “Pie Town.”

Just last year she was featured, again, in New Mexico Magazine.

“They went around anonymously trying foods in different places and came up with the Best Eats in New Mexico in the June issue,” Knapp said. “We were named for having the best dessert in the state in the ‘down-home’ category, our chocolate cream pie.”

Like a Phoenix rising

In 2014, Knapp’s pie-baking skills were recognized nationwide with the success of an award-winning short documentary, “The Pie Lady of Pie Town,” a hit at film festivals from Hollywood to Europe. The film, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Wes Studi, was the work of photographer and artist Jane Rosemont of Santa Fe, and profiles the pie maven who left a career in marketing to move with her mother from Dallas to Pie Town, where her family had acquired the closed-down Candalaria’s Trading Post in 1995.

“Three generations of women with a lot of faith brought the pie back, like the phoenix from the ashes,” she said. “My mother, the driving force, set a high standard and we worked hard to maintain it.”

Knapp admits she had never baked a pie in her life before that. “I was a photographer.”

“My mom was the baker.”

But two years into the endeavor, her mother had to leave because of Pie Town’s high elevation on the Continental Divide.

“I then became the baker by default,” Knapp said. “I called Mom a lot, I cried a lot, and I threw a lot of pies away. But I learned.”

She also credits her dad for helping out in the early years.

“My father, Harold, made many trips from Oregon to help with anything that needed to be done,” she said. “He loved visiting with the folks who came by. When times were tough, he backed me financially, too. I couldn’t have kept the cafe open without him.”

Along the way, Knapp has been helped in the kitchen by her many Pie Town and Catron County neighbors.

“First, Nita Larronde, who was famous for her oatmeal pecan pie,” she said. “Also Tanya Duffey, Jeramie Nelson, to name but a few, but especially my daughter Wendi, bless her heart. She filled in for me during the periods when I was gone, I watched her grow into an adult there.”

Home away from home

As word of the closing gets around, Knapp has been receiving emails from past customers.

“One gentleman in Oklahoma wrote, ‘I’m shocked and saddened to hear that my favorite place from decades ago when my wife and I used to travel there. Now she’s deceased, but my favorite coffee cup reminds me of my happy times there.'”

Knapp said it made her realize that the Pie-O-Neer had become a home away from home where family, friends and loved ones often laughed, relaxed, and had pie and coffee.

“I knew people liked it but I had no idea that I was part of all their really special memories,” she said.

“I never anticipated this kind of emotion. They literally get all weepy talking about their mother, their grandma, their favorite uncle that made their favorite pie for their birthday. I truly feel honored by that.”

What’s next for the pie lady?

“My partner Stanley King and I will use our combined 65 years of hospitality experience to reopen the Silver Creek Inn in Mogollon as a retreat center in the spring of 2021,” she said. “We’ll still be baking pies, just not as many.”

In the meantime, Knapp hopes someone will want to buy the Pie-O-Neer and continue the tradition.

“Be careful what you ask for. You might have to bake it,” she laughed.