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The life of pie: After more than two decades serving up dessert and community, the pandemic shutters beloved eatery

The last pies Pie-O-Neer shop owner Kathy Knapp baked in her shop on March 14, 2020. (Courtesy of Kathy Knapp)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was 1998 and Kathy Knapp had a decision to make.

Leave her very urban, all-the-conveniences-within-miles of Dallas life, or move to a place in the middle of nowhere that had more cows than people and was anything but convenient.

Knapp said some might not understand why a person who had spent her life in some of the country’s largest urban areas – Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas – would agree to move to Pie Town, New Mexico.

The unexpected, but unironic, answer was pie.

Knapp, 65, is the owner of the Pie-O-Neer shop in Pie Town but she announced in July that after more than two decades in business, she was closing permanently. The shop has gained national recognition, being featured in numerous publications, shows and even a documentary.

Pie Town locals gather for a potluck during an all-day community sing in June of 1940. The ladies are setting out baked goods.

Knapp said she and her partner Stanley King had already planned on selling the place and retiring in a few years, once they found buyers to take over the operation, but the pandemic condensed their timeline.

The Pie-O-Neer is usually closed for the winter and opens on Pi Day, March 14. It was the only day it was open in 2020.

Knapp said she didn’t know then it would be the last day she baked pies for the community.

Shortly after, the governor banned indoor dining and the lingering pandemic made staying open too much of a financial challenge. Knapp said she dragged her feet until early July before pulling the plug.

Knapp officially announced the closing on her Facebook page.

Then she went for a walk, unable to read the comments. Knapp said there were moments of weeping and disbelief after she publicly stated her intentions.

A sweet infatuation

From the beginning, the pie shop was the love affair Knapp never imagined having, but one that grabbed her almost immediately.

While traveling across the country in 1995, Knapp and her mother Mary Knapp stopped at the Thunderbird Trading Post in Pie Town. It didn’t serve pie, but it was for sale.

Knapp decided to buy it for her mother, Mary Knapp. Her mother put the pie back in Pie Town, transforming the trading post into a café.

“She had people coming from 20 miles away to eat biscuits and gravy every morning,” Knapp said. “It was her baby, but for health reasons the elevation was too much for her, and she couldn’t breathe so she had to move.”

Knapp had to make a choice. Sell the place or take over for her mom.

Knapp had been going back and forth between Dallas and Pie Town helping out her mom, so she had gotten a taste of what life might be like there.

March 14, Pi Day, was the 2020 opening day of the Pie-O-Neer pie shop. It also happened to be its last. Kathy Knapp, center, is seen with her staff, Tanya Brown to her left and Chelsi Pennington to the right. In the back from left to right is Stanley King and Jeremy Cooper.

“You have to understand, Pie Town was like something out of movie for me,” she said. “It was devoid of anything, and there is something attractive about that. … I knew I wanted to be here more than anywhere else.”

It wasn’t just the scenery either. It was the feeling of accomplishment she got when she perfected a pie and the satisfaction of making others happy with her cooking. Knapp had never worked in food service or baked much before taking over the restaurant.

“It’s a totally a different experience when someone walks in and you make them a sandwich and then before you know it, you are sitting there talking to them,” she said. “It was an instant high.”

Pie & community

One of the shop’s very first customers was local rancher Monika Helbling, who purchased a ranch and moved to Catron County in 1983. She said there were no pie shops or cafés then, only the trading post.

“It was 1995 and I remember my daughter Jessica was a third-grader in Quemado at the time,” Helbling said. “She was so excited to tell me that a café had opened in Pie Town. She said ‘Mommy, they are selling burgers.’ ”

A stage driver unloads packages at the Pie Town general store in June of 1940. (Courtesy of Russell Lee Via The Library Of Congress)

Knapp gave Helbling’s daughter – who is now an adult – her first job. Finding work can be a difficult task in a town with less than 150 people.

“An era is ending,” Helbling said. “… A lot of people regret her era has come to a close. For any café or small business in an area like this, it’s tough.”

Pie Town is located in Catron County, 84 Miles west of Socorro, along U.S. Route 60, and immediately north of the Gila National Forest. It had 126 residents in 2000, according the census. That number peaked at 186 in 2010 but has now fallen to 111, according to most recent census data.

The city got its name after Clyde Norman began baking apple pies and handing them out at the gas station he opened after his failed attempt at mining there. He initially called the station Norman’s Place but when more people came asking for his pies, he changed the sign to Pie Town. He eventually sold the place to Norman Craig who continued the pie-making tradition with his wife and children.

The name became official after the post office opened a branch there in 1927.

The Pie-O-Neer pie shop in December of 2019. It is now permanently closed.

According to town lore, the postal inspector suggested a more conventional name, but Craig told him the name would be Pie Town or there would be no post office.

The town holds a pie festival every year on the second Saturday of September that features a pie contest, music, food and games. Other nearby attractions include the Gila National Forest, the Plains of San Agustin and the Very Large Array radio telescope.

Not to fear though. There is still pie in Pie Town.

Two other cafés opened after Knapp’s. One has closed, but the Gatherin’ Place remains along U.S. 60. The shop is under new management and changed its to Pie Town Pies earlier this month.

Knapp is working on a cookbook featuring her pie recipes. She and King plan to open and run a bed and breakfast artist retreat, along with pie-baking classes, at the Silver Creek Inn in Mogollon once the pandemic subsides. She is hopeful her shop will have a happy ending as well.

“We are not pushing the pie shop to sell. We are looking for the next pie people,” she said. “You have to be a certain kind of crazy to come to the middle of nowhere and hang a shingle, and hope to the universe it’s going to work.”

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