Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond doesn’t like to say that she has built an empire. “When I hear that word, I think of Julius Caesar in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1,” Ree tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story, on newsstands Friday. “An empire is a place where you get to sit atop a throne and take in all that you’ve created, and I just don’t have time for that.”
But create she has. Ree, 49, has recently unveiled her latest project: the Boarding House, an eight-room boutique hotel in Pawhuska, Okla., a small town of 3,500 residents located about an hour outside Tulsa. The new hotel is housed in a building down the street from the Mercantile, Ree’s restaurant and retail store, which attracts thousands of fans every week. In a downtown where there’s no major supermarket and the only place to drink liquor is at a bring-your-own-whiskey happy hour inside a cowboy-apparel store, the Food Network star is also set to open a pizzeria and a steakhouse with a full bar in the coming months.
Ree’s meteoric career—which started with a blog in 2006 and has expanded to include five best-selling cookbooks, a hit TV show, a lifestyle magazine and a housewares line—has afforded her a unique opportunity to show off the place she calls home, where the once-quiet streets now bustle with tourists. “I’ve always loved our small town and it just thrills me that the Mercantile is giving people a chance to see what it’s all about,” she says. “And Pawhuska doesn’t exactly have a huge inventory of hotel rooms, so that’s how the Boarding House came to be.”
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For the visitors who have come from “all 50 states, and several different countries,” Ree also hopes to dispel myths some may have about small-town America. “I think, understandably so, that people make assumptions—that we all look the same, think the same, and vote the same,” she says. “But we have quite a bit of diversity in this town, both economic and cultural. Pawhuska is the headquarters of the [Native American] Osage nation. You could spend a lot of time in here and see the world from a lot of different perspectives. You don’t have to look too far out to hear differing points of view, differing backgrounds, and I’m glad that my kids have grown up in that environment.”
To read more about Ree Drummond’s life as a business mogul, wife and mother, plus exclusive Pioneer Woman recipes, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
For her husband Ladd, who was born and raised in Pawhuska and has had his boots on the ground (literally) as her business partner in all of her endeavors, being a part of the town’s regrowth is particularly rewarding. “When I was a kid, the downtown was pretty full,” he says. “Then in the early ’80s, everything went down—the agriculture business, the oil business—and that’s basically the economy in Osage County. Everybody was hurting.” Now, he says, “I love seeing people come back here. We have some great old buildings, and a lot of them are being fixed up and restored.”
Though Ree remains modest about her role in Pawhuska’s regrowth—”it really is a citywide effort to make things better,” she says—the mark she’s made is clear, as she employs over 250 people between the Mercantile and the Boarding House. “It was kind of a ghost town, and all of a sudden it just went ‘pop!’ and these new stores opened up,” says Mercedes McCaffrey, a 17-year-old barista at the Mercantile. “I just met a lady from Florida, and I was so excited, because I’ve never met anybody from Florida.”
And as with all aspects of their lives, Ree and Ladd’s business sense is driven by their Christian faith. “We’re Bible-reading folks, and we love that verse that says, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,’ ” Ree says. “We’re very mindful of storing up our treasures in heaven rather than on earth. We don’t want to bury them in the backyard and sit on them. It’s exciting to use whatever success we’ve achieved to do things that aren’t just about us.”