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Tri County Tech partners with Pawhuska’s Pioneer Woman

Tri County Tech partners with Pawhuska’s Pioneer Woman

Ree Drummond

Ree Drummond said she never once considered opening The Pioneer Woman Mercantile anywhere but Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

“I grew up near here, and Pawhuska is my home now. It’s where our kids were born. We’re dug in here,” she said.

And indeed they are. Her husband’s family has lived in Osage County for generations, and it was on their ranch outside of Pawhuska – 57 miles northwest of Tulsa – that Ann Marie “Ree” Drummond started her now-famous Pioneer Woman blog. That blog morphed into a popular television show and a series of best-selling cookbooks, and last fall The Merc was born – a retail store that includes a bakery, deli and grocery store in the heart of Osage County.

Before the Mercantile opened its doors, Pawhuska's claim to fame might have been that the first Boy Scout troop in the country was organized there in 1909, or that Clark Gable spent time there during the Oklahoma Oil Boom.

Silversmith Bruce Carter came to Pawhuska from Blackwell, Oklahoma, two years ago, in search of a 10-by-10 space for his shop. He settled on a much larger building on Pawhuska’s Main Street, across from the building Ree Drummond and her husband, Ladd, were in the process of renovating.

Carter turned his new storefront into the Tallgrass Art Gallery. Life was good, and business was OK, he said. When the Pioneer Woman opened the doors to her mercantile store last October, however, the once sleepy little town of Pawhuska – and Carter’s gallery – sprang to life. 

Tourism in Osage County

The Pioneer Woman Mercantile
Now more than 6,000 visitors a day converge on Pawhuska for the Pioneer Woman’s famous cinnamon rolls and chicken fried steak, and the tiny town is also gaining fame as a destination for culture and arts. The Tallgrass Art Gallery houses 65 artists, and there are three art galleries downtown.

Home to only 3,400 residents, Pawhuska has become the most popular tourist destination in a four-state region, bringing in more visitors than the St. Louis Arch and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

“We went from being a very small backwater community to being Disney World,” said Carter.

It’s been an overnight transformation for a community that was barely struggling to survive two years ago.

“The momentum was here,” Drummond said. “I did not cause the momentum. I’m causing more people to come to Pawhuska that might not otherwise come, but I know that I’m not the only thing they’re going to see when they come. And that’s very exciting to me.”

It takes a village

Bruce Carter
Bruce Carter
While Carter is enjoying the benefits of having a celebrity attraction across the street from his gallery, he knows that the continued success of Pawhuska is not on the shoulders of the Drummond family alone.

“All ships rise with the tide,” he said. “Our ship has risen, but it is up to us to keep it going.”

Joni Nash
Joni Nash
Joni Nash, executive director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce and economic director for the city, works in a building built in 1872 as the home of the local blacksmith. It is surrounded by a number of other historic buildings, some of which might be considered a little long in the tooth. These days, those fixer-uppers are being snatched up by savvy business developers who hope to cash in on the excitement.

“Our focus at the chamber is economic development,” Nash said. “All of a sudden we have all this organic growth and stimulation and we want to maximize the potential.”

Nash said the Chamber has partnered with the investors and promoters in the region and the state to show them what’s going on in Pawhuska.

“The Mercantile has brought people in by the droves, and there’s an overflow into all of the other stores and restaurants,” she said.

Scotty Roughton
Scotty Roughton
Scotty Roughton has owned the Grill 125 down the street from The Mercantile for about two years. At lunchtime there is now a wait for a table in his newly renovated historic building, once a boardinghouse. The former jockey and pipeline worker did 90 percent of the renovation work himself on the once-dilapidated building, and the work is paying off. His restaurant is hopping. But, he says, it’s no longer Pawhuskans eating there.

“Ninety percent of our business is coming from out of town,” Roughton said.

It’s not the first time a mercantile has attracted visitors to Kihekah Avenue. In 1910 the Osage Mercantile served its customers where The Merc is now.

Today’s Pioneer Woman Mercantile uses nearly a ton of butter to make about 700 sticky buns and 600-700 cinnamon rolls a day, and the influx of hungry tourists has raised sales taxes by about $20,000 a month.

Pawhuska City Manager Mike McCartney said the sales tax revenue is essential not just to keep the community afloat, but also to help it grow. Some of Pawhuska’s infrastructure is more than a hundred years old, and the onslaught of visitors will eventually take a toll on that infrastructure.

Parking woes in Pawhuska?

Mike McCartney
Mike McCartney
Pawhuska has gained more money, more shops and considerably more name recognition, but not everyone is excited about the overnight metamorphosis of their little town. Some of the locals have complained recently about traffic and parking frustrations, issues many of them have never had to deal with. It brings back memories of a very different Pawhuska for McCartney.

“It reminds me of growing up in Pawhuska back in the ’60s,” he said. “I can remember my mother driving around the block to find a parking spot.”

In the past decade in Pawhuska, parking was more than ample for the demand. In fact, some city officials and business owners feared they would never see the day when parking was an issue in Pawhuska. Even Drummond has been surprised by the worldwide response to the Mercantile, but she says Pawhuska’s growth is not really about her.

“It’s about Pawhuska,” she said. “There were already some pretty cool people here, setting up shop before we did. They got the ball rolling.”

Tri County Tech to the rescue

Merc Employees Bev and Brittany
That ball rolled a little faster when Drummond began to hire nearly 200 employees for The Merc and its warehouse. Suddenly there were jobs where there weren’t jobs before. She hired staff for her restaurant, retail business and operations. After hiring them, she said, she realized those new employees would need training -- all 200 at the same time.

“Once that sunk in,” she said, “we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”

That’s when CareerTech swooped in, she said, calling the staff at Tri County Tech her heroes.

Cindy Helmer
Cindy Helmer

“They literally swooped in, with their Superman capes on,” she said. “They completely led the whole process of training, of getting the documents ready to hand out to our new employees, coming up with the schedules -- I can’t even imagine how we would have done that training if it hadn’t been for CareerTech. I kept looking at them and saying, ‘What’s the catch?’”

Tri County’s Pawhuska Business Development Center, under the direction of Cindy Helmer, offers customized training, community education classes, business consultations and start-up information for businesses, and stepping up to the plate to help The Mercantile get up and running was not a stretch for the CareerTech training center. Staff members delivered customer service training and safety training, and in the future, they’re looking at the possibility of offering culinary arts training for students who might want to apply for bakery jobs.

Drummond and CareerTech have long history

There’s a beautiful irony in Drummond getting a helping hand from the Bartlesville-based technology center. Drummond’s grandfather, William Smith, was Tri County Tech's first superintendent and the first superintendent of a technology center in the Oklahoma CareerTech System. Although she never met her grandfather, Drummond said she feels like he is smiling down at her now.

Tri County Chief of Staff Tiffany Bruce said The Merc has been a great facility to partner with, and the benefits go both ways.

Bakery worker Elizabeth Keese
“We have students who are going to work at the Merc, so it’s a great avenue for our students. They get their training at Tri County Tech, and then they have a pipeline to come use their skills within the workforce. That’s been a great asset for us,” she said.

Pawhuska leaders and volunteers are working together to build a better community, according to Bruce.

“You just have a real positive feeling when you come into Pawhuska,” she said.

When Drummond was asked about her five-year vision for Pawhuska, she said, “I want it to thrive. I don’t know how that will look, but I just want to take it one day at a time and do the best we can do. We’re all in this together.”

In the meantime, Pawhuska visitors may have to drive around the block to find a parking spot, but the locals are taking it one day – and 2,000 pounds of butter – at a time.

Related Content

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Pawhuska Business Development Center

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Carmel Apple Sticky Buns, photo by Ree Drummond


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