“And I live in a small town” – John Cougar Mellencamp
God and I were cruising along in silent awe this morning along a scenic two-lane highway between two small towns in Oklahoma. Maybe you think that since God created everything that He doesn’t have anything to be in awe about, but I think there are times when even he leans back in his big recliner in the sky, looks at something, and says “yeah, I did pretty well right there.” It was Highway 20 between Skiatook and Barnsdall, Oklahoma where I quietly marveled at the majestic beauty of it all. On a bright Sunday morning the highway was quiet but the sites were plentiful. As my wife and daughter checked out their phones and laptops I was scanning the scenery of old farm houses, barns, trailers, fences, tractors, and cattle. Lots of cattle. In fact, in a roundabout way, it’s cattle that inspired this post today. #moo
We had just left the small town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, population 3500 (some people may say that’s a big town, but it’s all perspective I suppose). It’s the county seat of Osage county, the largest county by area in Oklahoma, and home to the Osage Indian tribe. I have been to Pawhuska so many times since the 1970’s I’ve lost count. I’ve never actually even kept count, but that’s beside the point.
My mom and her three brothers grew up in Pawhuska, attended high school, and moved away. But my grandma Ruby Duke stayed. She remained even after my grandpa passed away in 1975. My grandpa, Kay Duke, was a rancher from a ranching family in the panhandle of Texas, and they moved to Pawhuska in 1952. But from the time I came along he and my grandma always lived in town in a big brick house on 7th street. (Here is an excellent article from five years ago when my grandma spoke at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Heeko Chapter meeting in Pawhuska.)
My grandma sold the ranch after he passed, but she remained a fixture and model citizen of Pawhuska for many years. She moved away for a while to Tulsa and Wagoner and Norman, and then moved back to Pawhuska where she remained for many years again before moving to an assisted living center in Norman close to my parents where she still resides at the age of 100.
“No I cannot forget where it is that I come from. I cannot forget the people who love me”
Ruby Duke spent many active years in Pawhuska helping to clean up the community and trying to instill some life and pride in a dying downtown, but it wasn’t ever easy. A poor economy, and overall apathy kept the downtown like a ghost town many of those years, and that is the downtown I remember. Sure there were little shops and restaurants that would pop up like Lowry’s Clothing, which was, until recently, the most popular retail shop to visit. I say “until recently,” because the reason the wife and daughter and I were there this past weekend was to celebrate my sister-in-law Sherry’s birthday.
Sherry and her husband Greg brought their RV with them and stayed at Osage Hills State Park so that she could visit the new Pioneer Woman Mercantile owned and operated by local resident, Ree Drummond, aka “The Pioneer Woman.”
“Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town. Now she’s small town just like me.”
If you are not familiar with Ree then go ahead and Google “the pioneer woman” (you’ll get about 3.7 million results but she will be at the top of them), and read the incredible story of one woman’s journey from Bartlesville, Oklahoma to the University of Southern Cal and back to Oklahoma marrying a fourth generation rancher who she affectionately calls “The Marlboro Man,” and then life as a rancher’s wife just outside of Pawhuska. Finally her nothing-short-of-incredible rise as a small-time blogger to international stardom as “The Pioneer Woman,” a tongue-in-cheek nickname she gave herself when she began her blog back in 2006.
Hers is a very similar story to my grandma Ruby’s in the fact that they both had to learn to be ranchers’ wives, but just in different time periods and settings. Something tells me that despite over 50 years in age difference, there are still many similarities between what they each had to learn marrying into a ranching family.
The visit to Pawhuska and time spent with Sherry and her family was awesome. I would have never imagined there being lines for anything in downtown Pawhuska, but that’s just what I witnessed. My wife, daughter, and I stayed just a few blocks from “The Merc.” We arrived Friday night and ate at the best BBQ place going – Bad Brad’s BBQ. That’s another Pawhuska success story, because the Pawhuska location is the original location opened by Brad Barton shortly after his move from Houston in 1989. The franchise now has other locations in Stillwater and Yukon.
I woke up and walked down to The Mercantile at 7:15 on Saturday morning and was lucky enough to get seated at a two-person table right away, but by 8 am the line to get a table had already started forming (and it never ended). The wife came down shortly after and we had breakfast. We then walked over into the gift store where we killed time shopping and then wandered upstairs where we actually met Ree, who was signing autographs and taking pictures with people.
By the time we finished our picture-taking with Ree, my brother-in-law Greg, who had been in line outside in the cold waiting for a table for lunch (God bless Greg), reached the front of the line and it was time to eat again at just after noon. So, yes, my wife and I spent nearly five hours inside The Merc eating and shopping and getting our picture with Ree so we never had to go back outside to get in line! We ate a fabulous lunch of chicken fried steak, had the prune pie (so delicious!), and spent a few more minutes in the gift shop. We left at approximately 1:30 which was about six hours after I initially arrived at The Merc.
With the many times I’ve visited Pawhuska over the years for Christmases, and Thanksgivings, and Easters, I never thought I’d be visiting Pawhuska as a tourist destination. I hope you get to visit, because the place is really cool and I think it will even look much different five years from now as other businesses begin to pop up around The Mercantile (they already are starting to). Just be prepared to exercise some patience, but be prepared to enjoy some fine food, and take in all that Pawhuska and Osage County have to offer.
I don’t know if my grandma will get to see this new Pawhuska, because she doesn’t travel much anymore, but I hope she can make the trip one day soon. I know she’ll be proud and maybe a little shocked but very much hopeful for the coming growth and development of this small town that she poured so much love and energy into.
“Educated in a small town. Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town”
I was actually born in a “smallish” town of Weatherford, Oklahoma. The population was approximately 8,000 when I was born there, and I’ve lived in small towns throughout my life – Tonkawa, Seminole, and Lexington, Oklahoma to name a few. There is something quaint and nostalgic, almost Thomas Kincade-like about visiting small towns. I think if you live in one you probably get used to it and the charm can easily be lost on you as you long for the things that aren’t available to you that you think you’re missing out on. Well one thing you don’t have to ever worry about missing out on is meeting God. Maybe it’ll even be on a scenic two-lane highway near a small town that you live by.
Probably my favorite John Mellencamp song, it was released around this time in 1985 and eventually peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the video for “Small Town”…
As always, thanks for reading, #moo, and Happy Thanksgiving!