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Pawhuska is a small town nestled among the rolling hills and cattle ranches of northern Oklahoma. It was named for Osage Chief Paw-Hiu-Skah and serves as the headquarters for the Osage Nation Tribal Government. With a population of less than 3,500, this quiet town offers a mix of Native American and Western cultures to the visitor.

Any food enthusiast will enjoy the National Indian Taco Championship held annually in the heart of downtown Pawhuska on the first Saturday in October. The smell of fry bread wafts through the downtown area, inviting you in for a treat. Fry bread offers a fluffy fried base for beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and even chili. All of this topped with jalapeno peppers, sour cream, and various salsas creates a mouthwatering and slightly addictive taste of Native American history. While the Indian Taco is the centerpiece of the event, cultural dance and drum demonstrations along with craft vendors provide a peek into another time and culture of Osage County.

Pawhuska is proud of its Native American heritage and has been celebrating its food culture through this championship event since 2003. But in 2016 —when the star of Food Network’s The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, opened up The Mercantile — Pawhuska became a little more connected to food.

Pioneer Woman fans flock to Pawhuska to shop at “The Merc” — a nod to Pawhuska’s past. The Merc includes a general store of Pioneer Woman curated goodies, a deli, bakery and coffee bar. On select days, the Drummond Guest Lodge, where The Pioneer Woman cooking show is filmed, is open to the public. Tickets are free but have to be obtained from The Merc the day of your visit.

How it all began

In 2006, self-proclaimed accidental country girl Drummond launched a food and lifestyle blog called The Pioneer Woman. The name is fitting because she never had any intention of marrying a cattle rancher. But that is exactly what she did in 1996 when she married Ladd Drummond, whose family pioneered ranching in the Osage County area. They have four children, Alex, Paige, Bryce and Todd, who she writes about frequently. Ree’s entire family, including dogs and close ranch hands, appear frequently on her blog and cooking show, drawing fans into an unfamiliar ranching lifestyle.

In those early years, Ree’s blog gave readers a peek into the life of a cattle ranching family and offered up tasty recipes for the mom and home cook. Her fan base grew, leading her to compete against renowned chef Bobby Flay in a 2010 episode of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Beating Bobby Flay ultimately launched her into Food Network fame.

Barely a year later, The Pioneer Woman cooking show debuted on the Food Network, helping lead the network to its record-breaking year of viewership in 2012. Currently, in its 21st season, The Pioneer Woman offers down-home recipes and provides snippets of ranching life with the Drummond family and critters often taking center stage. Since then, Ree has authored five cookbooks and a memoir, published a children’s book series and a magazine, and has launched a home goods line with Walmart. All of this in addition to opening The Merc. Her blog continues to be the center of her activities.

The Merc

The Osage Mercantile Company building was built in 1910 and is evidence of the richness of the area’s early 1900s oil boom. Ree and her husband, Ladd purchased the building in 2012 after it had sat empty — near other unoccupied buildings — for many years. In an early blog post, Ree admits only “sort of knowing” what she and Ladd wanted to do with the building, but had hopes of breathing new life into the small town she loves.

That is exactly what happened. Several years of stripping and gutting, unearthing and rebuilding, The Merc now stands as a flagship of The Pioneer Woman brand. As much of the interior was restored to its original 1910 glory as possible. Visiting The Merc is a pilgrimage of sorts for fans all across the United States. Anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 people descend onto Pawhuska on any given day to get a taste — often literally — of what The Merc has to offer. The town is growing, and businesses are opening along the main street. Other attractions in and around the town like the Osage Tribal Museum and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve are seeing increased visits — and downtown parking is still free.

A visit to The Merc in Pawhuska is definitely a must for any Pioneer Woman fan. If you wish to eat at the deli, be prepared to stand in line for about two hours. The greeters and line attendants do let you post someone in line while others take time to tour the downtown, however, so as long as one person is in line, the others can meander.

The bakery on the second floor of The Merc has much shorter lines and is the perfect place to try out Ree’s famous cinnamon rolls and Spicy Cowgirl coffee. Both are well worth the short wait and may leave you wanting seconds — and thirds. The cinnamon rolls are a combination of yeasty goodness and gooey perfection, and the Spicy Cowgirl coffee has just enough kick from chile syrup to balance the chocolate sweetness.

A visit to the Lodge

If you are lucky enough to arrive on a day that the Guest Lodge is open, take the time to make the 12-mile drive. Be ready to go slow through cattle country, however, as the drive is mostly on gravel roads through the Drummond land. For fans of the show, laying eyes on the Guest Lodge for the first time may leave you overwhelmed and confused because it offers a breathtaking view from a bumpy gravel parking area that you never see on the show.

The interior of the Lodge is, however, exactly like what you see on television. The kitchen has Ree’s cookware set up for photo opportunities and someone from the family is always on hand to answer questions. What will surprise fans is the large prop pantry that contains every Pioneer Woman dish available, as well as all of the other cookware and utensils used on the show. The pantry sits next to a large commercial kitchen that is used for food preparation for parties and other gatherings at the Lodge.

For the love of dogs

Being cattle ranchers, it stands to reason there would be a variety of critters roaming the Drummond land, but Ree admits to being basset hound crazy. Her beloved basset, Charlie, has been immortalized in Ree’s children’s book series, 'Charlie the Ranch Dog.' In the series, Charlie often goes on adventures — or misadventures — with Walter, another of Ree’s hounds. Fans adored him and Charlie the Ranch Dog cookie jars, salt and pepper shaker sets, and kitchen towels have found their way into many a home. Charlie lost his battle with lymphoma in early 2017 but lives on in the hearts of children each time they read about him or sneak into a Charlie cookie jar.

While visiting the Drummond Guest Lodge, one will undoubtedly see Walter’s tail wagging through the kitchen. He is happy to receive belly rubs from anyone willing to give them. If any family could have a mascot, Walter is certainly it for the Drummonds. He travels to the Lodge on a daily basis to check out the activity. Once there, he doesn’t move around much. He doesn’t have to greet anyone because most visitors go in search of him. He simply lays, belly exposed, in hopes that someone — anyone — everyone — will take a seat next to him and stay awhile. A pat and scratch are always welcome.

For a food lover who happens to be a dog lover, this is a little slice of heaven.

Something for the whole family

From Southern Illinois, a weekend trek to Osage County can easily include something for the whole family. While there is lodging in Pawhuska, pre-planning many months ahead is required in order to stay in the small town. Bartlesville, about 20 minutes away, offers a large variety of lodging and has a historic downtown area to explore. With a population of around 35,000, there is an abundance of activities for the family.

Dotted all around the town are painted buffalo that kids and adult alike will enjoy hunting for — although you can print a list of locations from the Visit Bartlesville website. The Painted Buffalo Stampede is a fundraiser for the local Mary Martha Outreach and several businesses around town have commissioned artists to paint their sponsored buffalo.

Dinner at The Painted Horse Bar & Grill is the perfect way to wrap up a busy day of exploration. The kid-friendly restaurant sources all of its beef from the local Wolf Creek Ranch. From ranch to the table, you are guaranteed locally raised Angus beef for dinner. Make sure you start the meal with their Brick House Onions that are dipped in buttermilk and Guinness. Watch out for the ghost pepper aioli — it’s a kicker!

One your way back to Southern Illinois from Oklahoma, a stopover in Springfield at Bass Pro Shop might be necessary for the men in your life. The Bass Pro Angler’s Inn is situated across from the Bass Pro Shop and the new Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. With a few great restaurants nearby, you have the makings for a perfect day’s worth of activities.

Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium is the home of a diverse population of wildlife and habitats from around the world all staged in pristine museum exhibits. The aquarium boasts 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater habitats. There are 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds in the aquarium. More than 800 species are represented. You can wander through an African safari and encounter a shipwrecked at sea all in the same afternoon. You can even pet a stingray. Just be prepared to get a little wet.

A great trek with something for everyone in your family is within an eight hour drive and you never know who or what you might encounter along the way. From cattle and dogs, great food and painted buffalo, to making friends with a stingray, your getaway awaits.

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