PAWHUSKA, Okla. — Growing up in an Oklahoma town she considered too tiny, Ree Drummond sought the bright lights of a city and headed west for Los Angeles.
She never dreamed the journey would send her back to the plains of northeast Oklahoma, to a place with even fewer lights where she's become known and built a brand as "The Pioneer Woman."
Visitors from all 50 states, Canada, South America and England have come to The Pioneer Woman Mercantile, a store-bakery-restaurant she and her husband opened after starting a popular blog, then writing New York Times best-selling cookbooks and children's books, hosting a Food Network cooking show and, her most recent venture, The Pioneer Woman Magazine. The magazine is the first of two planned editions released this month and available at The Mercantile and at Walmart, where she also has a signature line of cooking, kitchen and dinnerware. Her digital and print catalogues are all full of her quips about motherhood and quick-and-easy meals mixed with musings on her late basset hound and comparing her current life in cowgirl boots to one where she used to wear pumps.
Recent blog entries covered everything from taking her homeschooled children to see the musical "Hamilton" on Broadway to finally finishing the TV show "Breaking Bad" and a forthcoming cookbook. Sony Pictures holds an option for a possible movie on her book "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels," in which she recounts how she met her husband, who isn't a smoker but whom she often calls "Marlboro Man.
"I think people are drawn to 'The Pioneer Woman,' not because I am some fascinating person, but because I present things that a lot of people can relate to," a self-effacing Drummond said in an interview with The Associated Press at the store, a retail and restaurant location she and her husband opened in October. "I'm not a chef, and I'm not an expert at anything. I'm just a mom and a wife."
Drummond grew up the daughter of a surgeon in Bartlesville, a town of about 36,000 people about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Pawhuska. As she puts it, she grew up on the seventh fairway of a golf course, a far cry from the working cattle ranch she now calls home. She left for school at the University of Southern California and, a few years after graduating, planned to move closer to home, to Chicago.
Her plans took a detour when she stopped for a visit in Bartlesville where she joined some friends at a bar and met "a cowboy wearing Wranglers." She went on to marry him in 1996, and never made it to the Windy City.
The cowboy, Ladd Drummond, is part of a prominent family that operates a more than 400,000-acre (162,000-hectare) cattle ranch in Osage County, about 7 miles (11 kilometers) west of Pawhuska, population about 3,900.
"It was, kind of just, love that got me out here, and then after we got married I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what have I done?' You know, 'Where am I, and this is real. I live in the country,'" Ree Drummond said. "If I had sat down and tried to plan an empire there's no way, no way any of this would have happened."
It's paying off for her and, town leaders hope, Pawhuska.
About 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Oklahoma City, Pawhuska has one stoplight that blinks red in four directions. Most of the last 40 miles (64 kilometers) of a two-lane state highway headed into town from the west are dotted with ranches, occasional cellphone towers, more than 100 windmills, and no signs with directions to the town, much less Drummond's store which she and locals call "The Merc."
Pawhuska City Manager Mike McCartney said he hopes to see an increase in the town's "less than 50" motel rooms with plans to renovate a five-story building across the street from The Mercantile into a hotel. Many visitors stay in nearby Bartlesville or Ponca City, he said.
Outside The Mercantile, drivers stop on Main Street to allow pedestrians to cross. On a sweltering June morning, as temperatures approached 90 degrees (32 Celsius), a line of people about 200 feet (60 meters) long and three to five persons wide, in spots, waited to enter the restaurant. Estimated wait time: more than two hours.
"If it's as good as all of her food that she cooks on her show" it will be worth the wait, said Laura Burton, 67, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
Kelli Linch, 52, of Rea, Missouri, drove more than five hours to eat at The Mercantile. She eventually opted for a takeout order.
Linch said there are many things she admires about Drummond, including that she often speaks on her show about her church and her family.
"I like that she's simple, and just a Plain Jane kind of gal," Linch said.