I always tell people that I grew up in a small town in Nebraska. The town where I spent my formative years had somewhere around 10 or 12 thousand citizens – give or take – when I lived there. Population specifics don’t really matter, however, because what I learned during my recent trip to Oklahoma is that Columbus, Nebraska, wasn’t really Small Town America.
Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is Small Town America…..
When you see little towns portrayed on television, they are generally lovely little communities with thriving small businesses adorned with striped awnings and flower boxes, and friendly people who greet one another with smiles and waves. In real life America – especially in rural areas in the bread basket of the United States — small towns are almost always sort of sad-looking, with crumbling abandoned buildings, and struggling businesses, there only out of a vital need. You know, grocery stores, hardware stores, a saloon or two.
I imagine that is the way Pawhuska, Oklahoma, looked three or four years ago. But no longer, thanks to renowned blogger and Food Network star Ree Drummond and her husband Ladd. Ladd Drummond grew up on his family’s ranch outside of this northern Oklahoma town. His ranch – which has likely been in his family for decades — consists of literally hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and innumerable heads of cattle.
At some point a few years ago Ladd and Ree decided that it was time to breathe some life into their little rural community. I don’t know who said the words first, but one of them said to the other, “Let’s revitalize Pawhuska.”
They purchased a building that was crumbling, and breathed life back into it. Their efforts – and money – has resulted in The Mercantile, a store so bright and cheerful and full of life that it nearly hurts your eyes. It certainly takes a toll on your pocketbook. And trust me when I tell you that there are very many pocketbooks in the Merc on any given day, and the people carrying those pocketbooks are spending lots of money. What’s more, they’re having fun, and little Pawhuska is the beneficiary…..
Being great fans of The Pioneer Woman, which is the moniker by which Ree Drummond is most well-known, Jen and I checked off a bucket list item last week and paid the Merc a visit. We flew into Tulsa, and drove to Bartlesville, which is the nearest sizeable town to Pawhuska, where we bedded down for the night. The next day (and half of the day after), we lived and breathed All Things Pioneer Woman.
We drank the delicious coffee, including a wonderful concoction called the Spicy Cowgirl. It is a blend of strong coffee, chocolate, and rich vanilla cream whipped into a frenzy and served over ice. The sassy beverage is served over tiny ice cubes that magically don’t melt, and finished off with a sprinkling of cayenne pepper……
Other treats we enjoyed included cinnamon rolls sprinkled with crackling cinnamon sugar that the Merc Bakery calls sugar buns, and Jen enjoyed a pancake breakfast with a variety of syrup choices, including orange clove, vanilla, and caramel that I wanted to eat with a spoon.
One of the things we most wanted to do was take a tour of the Lodge, and we were able to do so the first morning. The Lodge is where the Food Network program The Pioneer Woman is filmed. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the Lodge, and you drive by the Drummond ranch on the way…..
And let me tell you, what you see on her television program when she’s driving into town isn’t fake news. The road to the Lodge is gravel, and requires slow speeds and great concentration…..
According to a woman whose job was to make sure visitors didn’t make off with the silver, the Lodge had been built some years ago to provide a place for people visiting the ranch to stay. The kitchen was added about the same time that the show began appearing on FN. It was great fun to see the place in which we watch Ree cook each week; however, the really fun part was that, as we walked around the Lodge, we came upon the place where the cooking is actually done…..
I will admit to being tickled by the fact that the enviable Pioneer Woman’s pantry stays so clean because there is a REAL pantry behind the scenes…..
The Drummonds haven’t ended the revitalization of Pawhuska with only the Mercantile. They recently opened an eight-bedroom boutique hotel that we also were able to tour. The hotel is adjacent to the Merc, and part of the building that they rehabbed. There are two floors of four rooms each. Ladd supposedly was responsible for decorating the third floor while Ree gave the second floor her touch. The difference in styles was notable. But even more impressive was the fact that as the work began on the rehab, they unexpectedly came across an amazing mural that was decades old and part of the original pharmacy. Rather than painting over the mural, they painstakingly cleaned the mural and left it as part of the wall decoration…..
The Merc’s food was amazing, and served by the nicest people you could ever hope to meet….
It’s astounding to think about the number of people being employed — both as staff, and as construction workers as the rehab efforts continue. They have a pizza place scheduled to open any second now that is in a building across the street. There are also plans for a steak house and a saloon. The economic boosts just keep on coming.
In fact, now that the Drummonds have started their revitalization efforts, investors in a building across the street plan on opening a 20-unit hotel in July…..
Me, being of a nervous nature, can’t help but wonder what will happen if and when the Pioneer Woman brand goes south. As well-planned and well-run as everything is, I am keeping my fingers crossed that there are long-term plans as well.
In the meantime, we enjoyed our little two-day adventure very much, especially the Ladd-sighting that we had one morning at breakfast. It was nice to see that the Drummonds actually maintain a presence.
As for Jen and me, on to our next adventures…..
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