Approaching the west city limits of Pawhuska (population 3,477) this small northeastern Oklahoma town resembled a typical dusty burg in rural America with few redeeming distinctions, but upon reaching the downtown area, we immediately knew otherwise.
On this summer morning, Pawhuska’s downtown area appeared to have a traffic jam, but instead it was a long line outdoors waiting to be seated for breakfast in a restaurant/mercantile building which may have seen its origin in the late 1800s.
Before explaining this phenomenon that has overtaken Pawhuska, it might be best to put these goings-on into perspective.
Ree Drummond, better known as the Pioneer Woman, has transformed Pawhuska and her family’s ranch (eight miles west of the city) into a destination stop for those with culinary and shopping interests. Weekly, her cooking show is produced in a studio on the ranch and viewed by millions nationwide on The Food Network. In Oklahoma, her celebrity has grown to equal, if not surpass, the likes of Coaches Bob Stoops and Barry Switzer.
Drummond’s story is not rags to riches by any stretch as she grew up Ree Smith, in a home adjacent to Bartlesville, Oklahoma’s Country Club, the daughter of an orthopedic surgeon. Upon graduation from high school, travels took her to the University of Southern California where she earned degrees in Journalism and Gerontology.
On a return to Bartlesville for a holiday break while contemplating her next step (law school studies in Chicago), she met up with several lifelong friends at what she calls a “Dive,” named the J-Bar. While there, she caught sight of Ladd Drummond, a Pawhuska rancher, drinking bottled beer and after striking up a conversation with him, a lengthy visit followed. Apparently, lightning did not strike immediately for Drummond as he waited four months to call for a first date, but as they say, the rest is history and, in 1996, they were husband and wife.
The marriage produced four children as they took up residence on the Drummond Ranch, a cow/calf operation near Pawhuska.
Ladd Drummond’s bears a resemblance to early day television’s Marlboro Man so much so that Ree gave him the nickname, and it stuck.
By 2006, Ree was a 37 -year-old mother of four living the comfortable life of a rancher’s wife when she decided to spread her wings, and started publishing live blogs titled “Confessions of a Pioneer Woman.” At first, her topics dealt with ranch life and homeschooling her children, before branching out to offer a few tips on cooking steak. By 2011, she had an audience of 23 million views per month.
She made her first television appearance from the family ranch in 2010 when she participated in a cooking contest judged be fellow Oklahoman singer Trish Yearwood, and one year later launched a television show on The Food Network which remains to this day with a weekly audience in the millions. Along the way, she penned several books, including her life story “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels” that soon vaulted to a New York Times best seller.
With these accomplishments in hand, it only seems natural that her next stop was to enter the restaurant/mercantile business in a big way in Pawhuska, with a 25,000-square-foot, century-old bank building provided the setting.
The Pioneer Woman Mercantile opened its doors in 2016 providing a little something for everyone including a restaurant, bakery, and upscale coffee shop. After a hearty meal, one can check out high end apparel and housewares. More recently, she started publication of the Pioneer Woman Magazine and in the current edition penned a story about the events that prompted her to change course and marry a rancher, in lieu of pursuing a law degree.
As many as 15,000 visitors have dined here on a single day and from what we could tell people leave with a bag full of merchandise that they couldn’t live without. Most days result in approximately 6,000 visitors (or nearly twice the population of Pawhuska) to the Mercantile.
Dee seems especially proud of her coffee and was recently quoted as saying, “Never underestimate small town coffee.”
Tulsa Reporter Scott Cherry stopped by one day for lunch and reported these findings. “We arrived at 11 a.m., and the line to the restaurant-deli stretched down the sidewalk about as far as the eye could see. We were told it was about a two-hour wait, but as I could tell, it stayed that way until about 3 p.m.,” Cherry said.
The Drummonds open their ranch for tours twice each year but visitors are not allowed inside the family home.
The Ree Drummond story left this visitor with the assurance that anything is possible these days and that entrepreneurship is alive and well in rural America and in Pawhuska, Oklahoma for certain.
Richard Shank is a retired AT&T manager, is employed in the healthcare industry and has farming interests in Saline County. firstname.lastname@example.org.