Friday, October 9, 2009

A New Mexico Homestead Story: Pie Town Woman

In 1940 about three hundred families lived in Pie Town. One of these families was selected by photographer Russell Lee to tell the story of homesteading in New Mexico during this time. Fifty years later photographer Joan Myers came across some of these images in a magazine article and wondered what happened to these twentieth century pioneers. Where are they today?

For several years it was just an unanswered question but then the author was given a letter written by one of the woman in the pictures. It said,

I am writing you because I too am a woman of New Mexico. In 1930-32 I spent each summer traveling with George Mickey, a Church of Christ minister who spent each summer holding meetings in different communities, at Pie Town, and community schoolhouses there in Catron County. His oldest daughter was my best friend. I don’t know anything about writing and can’t spell my own name but never the less I wrote in longhand about 46 pages of my life at Pie Town…

When Russell Lee came out to take his pictures, he was in my home many times. He loved to follow my daughter Josie around to make pictures of her doing what she normally did each day at play…

This letter was written by Doris Caudill. She is also pictured as a young woman looking proudly at her canning accomplishments. Myers set off to discover what had happened to her. Myers found her living in Cascade Locks, Oregon.

I told Russell about a square dance we were having at a neighbor’ house and invited he and Jean to go. He did and got a lot of fine pictures. One was McKee doing a jig. Another was the kids asleep on the bed. My Josie was the first one next to the camera. You can see her big feet better than her face…
Sorry to take up so much of your time but when I get started thinking of the Pie Town years I don’t want to stop talking. We were dirt poor but we didn’t know it. We were a happy and made our own fun.

The book is really two stories. One is of the photographs taken by Lee in 1940 and the other is the story of Doris and the impact this experience had on her. It is a great read for the history buff and for the person with an interest in photography.

One aspect of the book which impressed me was the way the author wrote about Doris’ experiences in Pie Town. It was based on what Doris remembered and I really wanted to believe her family had been successful. It seemed to match what the photographer had attempted to do when he took his pictures in 1940.

Before taking the pictures Lee first had to get the approval of his boss Roy Stryker, director of the historical section of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was created during the Great Depression to solve the problems of the poorest farmers, especially those who had lost their livelihood under New Deal programs. Lee’s message to Stryker said:

"Then we crossed the continental divide and on to Pie Town, which is a settlement of migrants from Texas and Oklahoma-dry land farmers raising Pinto beans and corn. Talked with the store owner there and I believe it should be one community we must cover. He called it the “last frontier” with people on farms ranging from 30 to 200 acres –some living in cabins with dirt floors-others better off, but all seemingly united in an effort to make their community really function.”

Once he had Stryker’s approval he took over 600 pictures including 100 of Doris, her husband, Faro, and their daughter, Josie. They show Doris planting her garden, canning vegetables, milking cows and going to the neighborhood gatherings. It is interesting to look at the pictures and then read Doris’ descriptions of events which happened sixty years ago.

The author also talks to Lee’s widow to offer some understanding of his intentions when taking the photographs. This works because his widow, Jean Lee, accompanied her husband when he took the pictures and was responsible for writing the captions for each picture.

In addition to Lee’s iconic photographs the book also includes Doris’ family snapshots, and photographs taken by Myers herself showing the visual residue of those bygone years.

Joan Myers does a masterful job of combining these photographs along with interviews with Doris Caudill Jackson and Jean Lee to offer a complete look at a homesteading experience in the twentieth century and how it is remembered in the twenty-first century.

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