The chuck wagon of old was more that just a restaurant on wheels, it was the center of a cowboy’s life. It provided not only food but also a place to socialize, swap stories, tell lies and get patched up after your bronc thew you. The chuck wagon made possible the shortest yet most iconic-graphic period of history in the world. If there had been no chuck wagon it would have been impossible to have a cattle drive and without cattle drives no cowboys; at least not as we know them. Can you imagine life without the cowboy? No playing cowboys and Indians, no bronc busters, no rodeo’s. Our culture would be very different than we know it today. No one even knows how much the cowboy has influenced. Unlike any other figure in history cowboys have been praised and idolized both during and since their own time. They have known no boundary; not of time nor of place. There is no nationality in the world that would not immediately recognize a cowboy if he walked by. And all of this was made possible by a simple wagon.
Many people give Charley Goodnight credit for inventing the chuck wagon however there is little proof to substantiate this. Long before Goodnight, wagon trains often had a certain wagon within the train that was responsible for doing the cooking. Since food was commonly referred to as “chuck” this wagon was called the “chuck wagon”. The first chuck wagons were simply wagons that hauled food from place to place. In general they have remained the same with only one major change; the chuck box on the back of the wagon. Who ever the inventor of this was I bet his cook cooked him up some pretty special grub as a reward. However being a cook myself I kind of figure that necessity is the mother of invention and the cook just got tired of climbing in the wagon and digging through it every time he wanted something; so he built a kitchen pantry on the back of the wagon.
And that is exactly what a “chuck box” is; a kitchen pantry on the back of a wagon. You have shelves for flour, sugar, beans and coffee; slots for jars of peaches, and pickled eggs, drawers for your cooking utensils and a big compartment on the bottom for all the cast iron pots, pans and Dutch Ovens. The door of the cupboard folds down into a counter. This can be seen on our wagon in the first picture of this page; also in the first four photos below which are early 1900’s pictures of actual working chuck wagons.
The food you would encounter at a chuck wagon dinner depended on how long you had been out on the trail.The cook would pack some perishable foods and use those first, like potatoes, turnips, apples and carrots. Then there were packed a lot of things with a longer shelf life such as; pickles, pickled eggs, canned peaches, dried peaches, salt pork, sugar, coffee, flour, baking powder, salt, syrup, beans ect… Along the way they would butcher a cow every every so often for fresh meat. Since there was no refrigeration, a lot of it would be cut in strips and hung from the ribs of the wagon, to dry underneath the canvas cover. This dry meat could latter be boiled into stews, beans or chili. A typical dinner would be something like this; steak, potato salad, biscuits, baked beans and peach cobbler. Breakfast might be sourdough flapjacks with syrup and lunch a pot of chili beans with tortillas. All of these would be washed down by the ever present coffee; the only beverage other than water offered on a cattle drive.
There were bad cooks on trail drives but I would venture to say that they were few and far between. It took some pretty good chuck to keep a group of men doing hard physical labor from sun up to sundown for two or three months at a time; as well as pulling a night-shift every evening! Trail bosses knew this so cooks were picked carefully.
Historians agree that the modern day rodeo and “chuck wagon cook-off” comes from the old round ups. Back before fences kept cows from different ranches separate, all the ranches would get together for a round up. They would bring all the cattle in to one location to sort out which ones belonged to who and brand them as such. While they where camping together all kinds of games took place. Who could rope and tie the fastest. Who could run a certain cow between two poles they set up. Who could ride the worst bronc and so forth. While the cowboys were having a rowdy good time, the cooks were in a silent war of there own. Who could cook the best and get the most complements. These competitions were more than just games to pass the time of day, they were job security. Both for the cowboys and the cooks. The top wrangler was sure to find a job even when there weren’t any and the best cook could just about name his own wages. Every outfit wanted the best cook; their cowboys would work for less and be more content. Most people do not realize but the cook was the second in command under the Foreman. If something happened to the foreman the cook took over. Quite often the cook also played barber and doctor to shaggy or scuffed up cowboys. The cook was the last in bed and up before the cowboys had even rolled over, so he deserved and received much better pay than the rest of the boys.
In the picture to the left you can see a bed roll wagon off to the right. Most of the time a cattle drive would have a bedroll wagon as well as the chuck wagon. A cowboy’s bed roll and pillow or “war bag” was his only possession other than his horse and saddle. The bedroll was made of layers of quilts and wool blankets it also had a shell of oiled canvas to keep out the rain. This was his sleeping bag and the only thing that stood between him and the elements. It had to be warm enough to stand up to an early fall or late spring blizzard. Since this roll was the only thing belonging to a cowboy on a drive he would keep his other belongings rolled up in it. His good shirt and pants would be in-between the layers; some cowboys said that it was just like having them in a press, you never had to worry about ironing them for a night out on the town! All these layers and stuff made these bags quite big and heavy so any decent sized outfit would need an extra wagon for the bed rolls. The bedroll wagon was usually driven by a young boy who was the cook’s helper.
Chuck wagons were used well into the 1900’s on large ranches and indeed their legacy lives on in chuck wagon cook-offs and chuck wagon dinners on dude ranches throughout the west. In the near future we hope to again start offering our authentic chuck wagon dinners to the public by reservation.