The Chuckwagon: Cooking for Cowboys on the Cattle Trail

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In 1866, Texas rancher Charles Goodnight created a practical solution to the problem of feeding cowboys during cattle drives.

From 1866 to 1895, over 10 million cattle were herded across Texas along various established trails leading to the Missouri and Kansas railroads for shipment east. Texas rancher Charles Goodnight and fellow rancher, Oliver Loving, combined their herds and headed north along what would soon be known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Before they left the ranch, Goodnight realized he would need some way to feed himself and his cowhands for the next five months, so he invented the chuckwagon.

Constructing a Chuckwagon

For his portable cowboy kitchen, Goodnight chose the sturdiest wagon he could find, the Studebaker, a wagon used for many purposes during the American Civil War. The wagon was ten feet long by forty inches wide with bentwood bows like a traditional covered wagon. Goodnight added a “chuck box” to the rear of the wagon, which is similar to a desk with cubby holes for storage and a hinged lid that drops down to serve as a work table. Goodnight also added a boot, or box, underneath the wagon for additional storage of cooking utensils, pots and pans. The wagon bed held bed rolls, lanterns and kerosene, a spare wagon wheel, rain slickers, and enough food and coffee beans to sustain ten or more men for the duration of the trip. A water barrel and coffee grinder was attached to the side of the wagon.

The Cook

The cook, or “cookie,” played an important role in cattle drives. Politically, he was second only to the trail boss. He was first to rise in the morning, preparing for all the days meals. He repaired torn clothing for the cowhands and doctored wounds. He also served as the camp barber, dentist, and banker. He was the last to bed at night, and before he retired he turned the wagon’s tongue toward the North Star so the trail boss would have a compass direction in the morning.

Travel Formation

The men and cattle also used the chuckwagon as a compass point throughout the day. The chuckwagon would follow the path designated by the trail boss and the men would fan out, circling back to the chuckwagon in the afternoon to sort and brand the cattle. The cowboys held various rotating positions while the trail boss moved ahead to plan the best route and the cook held the chuckwagon on a steady path.

Ready-Made Chuckwagons

Eventually, Studebaker and other companies produced chuckwagons ready for the trail, companies such as Springfield Wagon, Old Hickory Wagon, Moline Wagon, and the Mitchell Wagon Company. Though it is often portrayed as a chuckwagon in Western films, the Conestoga with its sloping fore and aft sections was not used on cattle trails because it was far too heavy and bulky.

Contemporary Chuckwagons, Races, and Cook Offs

From New Mexico to Montana there are numerous chuckwagon companies still serving up authentic cowboy food and music. In Canada, the World Professional Chuckwagon Association holds professional chuckwagon races and this competitive sport attracts many adventure-loving fans. Guy Weadick, Calgary Stampede founder, introduced the idea to the Stampede in 1923. The American Chuck Wagon Association was established to help preserve the history and traditions surrounding the chuckwagon in the American West. Members of this organization participate in “cook offs,” with judging based on the authenticity of the wagon’s construction and setup, the cook’s wardrobe, food, and even hospitality!

Resources:

  1. “Chuck Wagon Central.” Lone Hand Western.
  2. Forbis, William H. “The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Inc. Canada: 1973.