The town of Pawhuska was founded in 1872 on the banks of Bird Creek, within the Osage Nation in Indian Territory. It was named in honor of a tribal chief, Paw-Hiu-Skah (meaning White Hair). A post office opened in 1876 and by Oklahoma statehood in 1907 there was a newspaper, railway station, and almost 2,500 residents. It’s where the first Boy Scout Troop was organized in America (pre-dating the actual Boy Scouts of America) and home of the Cavalcade, the world’s largest amateur rodeo. It was also the centerpiece for the terrible Osage Indian Murders; if you haven’t read Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s a tremendous (devastating) read.
For me, though, Pawhuska has been the city of my father’s family. My grandfather, Hardy Martin, ran Redbud Grocery for many years before “retiring” to the country with a meat processing shop. Uncle Jody bought Hometown Appliance in the 1990s (which he runs to this day) and the rest of the Martin family has contributed to the community in a variety of ways. My earliest Christmas memories come from a small converted schoolhouse north of town, where my grandpa Hardy would hand out presents dressed as Santa Claus. We drove up there every holiday season.
As I grew older, I saw a town in decline. By the time I could drive myself to the Osage Capital, the population was roughly half of what it had been during the Oil Boom days. The charming downtown was mostly empty; the Wal-Mart on the edge of town had driven many of the small businesses out. By the time Dad moved back there to care for grandma, even the Waltons had waved goodbye. The town held on, but it seemed to be on an inevitable downward path.
Christmas 2010 was a personally somber affair, as Grandma Gail had recently passed and my first marriage had just ended. Christmas 2011 was the first one without Dad. The emptiness of Pawhuska mirrored the emptiness of my heart. I saw my reflection not only in the vacant store windows, but also between the crumbling bricks and within the demolished houses. A mongrel of emotion roamed the streets, curled in my cousin’s driveway or waiting for me in the alley near the courthouse steps.
Then, in October 2016, a miracle. Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman cook and author, opened The Mercantile on the corner of Main St and Kihekah Ave. The dilapidated storefront had been renovated and re-opened as the mecca for all things Pioneer Woman, providing a retail anchor and dining hot spot in the heart of town. Ree’s following was international: the guestbook had signatures from all over the globe, much like the Route 66 attractions I knew so well. Over the last year, that jolt of energy has translated into dozens of new and revitalized businesses.
When I drove into Pawhuska this year for the annual Martin get-together, my heart swelled with happiness. The streets were lined with cars sporting varied license plates. A bright neon sign buzzed next to the under-renovation Triangle Building, long my favorite structure in town. A B&B was open across the street from my uncle’s store. Everywhere I looked, the trajectory had reversed. The town had survived loss and was enjoying renewed life; much like I have since Samantha came along. Someone that believes in you is the best gift you can ever receive.