Small Town America: Home of The Pioneer Woman and Sally’s Cafe
A visit to small town America is sort of like that box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Or who you’ll meet. I sampled that “box of chocolates” yesterday in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I spent the day in Pawhuska as part of my television station’s “Rollin’ Down Main Street” tour.
When I told people I was heading to Pawhuska, everyone said, “You’ve GOT to meet The Pioneer Woman.” Yeah, sure. I’d heard of her, that she has a big ranch and writes about her experiences, but that’s about all I knew of her. So I checked out her blog, and was floored. Her photography is breathtaking, and her stories about her husband (she calls him Marlboro Man), kids, animals, cooking, rural living, etc. are amazing. She’s sought after by media all over the country. So I said to myself, “I’ve GOT to meet The Pioneer Woman.” So my producer set it up and Ree Drummond, better known as The Pioneer Woman, met us in downtown Pawhuska for a live interview for one of our newscasts. The Pioneer Woman is definitely a must-see during a visit to Pawhuska. If you can catch her.
Sally Carroll does not have an alter ego, or her own blog. She doesn’t live on a sprawling ranch, and she’s not sought after by national magazines and TV shows. You have to pretty much stumble upon a tiny cafe that bears her name off the main drag in Pawhuska. Don’t blink or you might miss Sally’s Cafe. 94 year old Sally Carroll has been cooking breakfast for the town of Pawhuska since 1950. 60 years! Every morning, hunched over a hot griddle, she makes her eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, toast, and chili (her favorite), for her extended family. Three of them joined me for breakfast. Phillip Fortune (that’s him wearing the bling on his fingers), Lawrence Bighouse, and Gary (didn’t get his last name, but he’s a CPA) told me that Sally has fixed them breakfast just about every morning for DECADES. While Sally isn’t famous outside of Pawhuska, this small, stooped shouldered woman is larger than life here. The wall behind her single counter cafe still has a working pay phone (what’s that?), and is littered with news clippings and photos of a younger Sally, conjuring up memories of scrambled eggs and crisp slices of bacon of years gone by. She cherishes the picture with her favorite customer, native Oklahoman and late movie actor Ben Johnson.
“I knew him when he was a poor cowboy,” she told me. Sally is by no means rich herself (she started working at her cafe, before buying it, for $18 a week). And standing for hours at a time, flipping pancakes and turning eggs over a hot griddle, isn’t easy at any age. So I asked her the obvious, “When will you hang up your apron?” She shot back, “When they carry me out of here. This is fun. I enjoy it.” 94 year old Sally Carroll is another must-see in Pawhuska.
Pawhuska is less than 90 minutes away from Tulsa by car. But that hour and a half ride took me back decades in time. A time when Hank Williams and Bob Wills probably sat next to Ben Johnson on the stools at Sally’s Cafe. In many of the old brick buildings, some of which are re-modeled and others crumbling, you can still almost hear the twang of those country music legends. While Pawhuska’s hey days are behind it, that doesn’t mean its future isn’t bright. Like many rural communities, Pawhuska is trying to survive by re-inventing itself. Oil and ranching are still big here, but it’s now trying to attract a new breed of artist. Ryan Red Corn is a graphic artist. His tool isn’t a guitar, but a computer and a witty mind. Six years ago, this 31 year old conjured up catchy slogans, some of them political and many of them slightly irreverent, and slapped them on t-shirts.
They sold on the internet like Sally Carroll’s hotcakes. Ever since, Red Corn has been a sought after graphic designer. His resume includes a poster for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and artwork for the Smithsonian. Red Corn’s business, Buffalo Nickel Creative, is in an unassuming store front off Main street. It could be planted in Los Angeles, New York, Vail. Anywhere. I asked him, “Why Pawhuska, Oklahoma?” “I like it here”, he told me. “It’s where my people are.”
Ryan Red Corn, Sally Carroll, The Pioneer Woman. Each are artists in their own way. But all three have one thing in common: they’ve decided to use their creativity to make Pawhuska, Oklahoma a better place to live. Like I said, you never know who you’ll meet when you make a stop in small town America.