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. 

Ree Drummond, "The Pioneer Woman"

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

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.

Sally Carroll with 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.

Ryan Red Corn with one of his t-shirt designs

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.

7 Comments on “Small Town America: Home of The Pioneer Woman and Sally’s Cafe

  1. Great story, Mark ! I love small towns, and love to hear the stories of interesting people like the ones you interviewed. In fact, this story about Pawhuska takes me back about 8 decades to my own birth town, Shellsburg. Your great-grandfather was the town constable, the Sunday School Superintendent, the first fire-man, and the mortician who did the embalming in parlor of our home. There’s nothing like a small town and it’s characters!

  2. Pingback: Meeting the Pioneer Woman: Just Don’t Make Me Cook « In the Noozroom

  3. Wow, I can’t believe Sally is still serving up food in her little cafe! More than 30 years ago, my husband and I worked just down the street at the then daily newspaper. There’s no telling how many breakfasts and lunches we ate there during our two-year stint there. Loved her hamburgers (have never found one as good) and those pork sandwiches. I remember her stories about when Bob Wills would stop by after playing a dance. I’m assuming that Sally’s husband Bill is no longer with us. Does Sally still have all the framed pictures behind the counter drawn by Bill Lehmann? When she learned that someone had died, she’d change the frame out to black . . . unfortunately, I would bet that the vast majority of the frames would now be black. Time does take its toll. I’ve not been back to Pawhuska in more than 20 years but I do remember the place fondly. It has a unique history.

  4. Pingback: The Pride of Pawhuska – In The Noozroom

  5. Lived in pawhuska ate lunch at Sally’s I remember Sally & Bill cooking behind the counter I also remember the pie if I had enough $ I ate the pie first good food great people.

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