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The Chuckwagon

The Chuckwagon, the cowboy cook’s rolling pantry—how rancher’s kept hungry cowboys fed on the trail.

Most ranchers will tell you that cowboys are always hungry, so one ranch challenge is to satisfy that hunger. The ranch cook-shack is where cowhands gather for meals when they are close to home. On the move, the chuckwagon is where the cook rules and dishes up tasty fare including cowboy beans, sourdough biscuits, vinegar pie, or son-of-a-gun stew—a dish made from the heart, liver, and tripe of an animal. What’s tripe? The lining of the stomach.

On historic cattle drives, and even today at roundup, the chuckwagon is the heart of the cowboys’ camp, and the cook’s job is key to keeping the ranch hands happy. Cowboys have been known to move from one ranch to another based on the quality of “Camp Cookie’s” food.

To answer the question of how the chuckwagon got its name, we have to look back to the 1600’s in England where butchers used the term “chuck” to identify their cheaper meat products. Jump to the 1700’s and chuck had become a common term for good, basic food.

You might be surprised to know that the chuckwagon is the official vehicle of Texas.

Thanks to Charles Goodnight, a Texas Ranger turned cattleman, the chuckwagon made its appearance in 1866. Goodnight—along with pioneer cattleman Oliver Loving—planned a cattle drive from Texas to Colorado, in hopes of  opening new cattle markets. In preparation, Goodnight bought a surplus Army wagon with heavy iron axles and customized it to serve as storage, a rolling pantry, water wagon, tool box and medicine chest. To serve these purposes, Goodnight started with the basic wagon bed and added three elements which were already common on wagons: on one side he attached a large water barrel which would hold a couple of days worth of water; on the other side, a big tool box; and curving above the wagon bed, bentwood supports for a heavy canvas top. However, what was innovative about Goodnight’s chuckwagon design was the creation of a chuck box. Installed at the rear of the wagon, the chuck box was a built-in cabinet with a rear opening covered by a hinged lid that flipped down from the front of the cabinet, creating a table surface supported by a leg which swung to the ground. Inside the cabinet was a series of shelves and drawers.

Packing the wagon before a trail drive or roundup, here’s what Goodnight’s  trail-drive cook would likely have loaded into the wagon bed: bedrolls, slickers, guns, ammunition, lanterns, kerosene, axle grease, a spare wheel, and rope, along with bulk food including flour, brown sugar, coffee, and salt. Also, pinto beans, corn meal, salt pork, beef jerky, and dried fruit. Especially well stocked chuckwagons might also contain potatoes, onions and canned tomatoes.The side-mounted tool box would contain branding irons, hobbles, shovel, ax, horse-shoeing supplies and other tools. Shelves and drawers in the chuck box itself, would be packed with food for immediate use plus items like lard, baking soda, vinegar, molasses, sourdough starter, matches, and tobacco. Somewhere in this inventory would be the coffee pot and whiskey bottle—the whiskey for medicinal purposes!  An important drawer in the chuck box was the “possible drawer” which the cook packed with odds and ends that might possibly be needed—including such things as needles, thread, buttons, and castor oil. Below the chuck box, in the boot of the wagon, the cook would store his wash tub, skillets, dutch ovens, pot hooks and racks, tin cups, plates and silverware. And let’s not forget the all-important coffee grinder which was attached to the side of the chuck box.  All in all, a well-organized pantry on wheels—a pantry that was put to good use, although most meals were beans, sourdough biscuits, and dried fruit. 

On a trail drive, the Camp Cookie was the first one up. He’d roll out of his bedroll long before sunrise, start the fire, and begin making coffee and preparing breakfast. After serving breakfast and washing the dishes, he’d repack the chuckwagon and drive to the place the trail boss had identified as the mid-day stopping point. He’d cook and serve lunch, clean up, repack and drive to the designated end-of-day rendezvous spot, where he’d do it all again. After dark, he was responsible for turning the chuckwagon to face the north star to help orient the trail boss the next morning.  On the trail, he improvised as doctor and dentist and sewed on more than a few lost buttons. His tasks didn’t change despite rain, snow, high wind, or intense heat. The chuckwagon cook was a hero of the old west who has inspired many a backyard cookout today.

As a footnote: Historically, many chuckwagon “Cookies” were Hispanic, as were many of the cowboys. In fact the Mexican vaqueros were the inspiration for cowboys and for the name buckaroos. Today there are still lots of Hispanic chuckwagon cooks. Women populate the chuckwagon ranks as well. . . All capable of turning out tasty meals that put smiles on cowboys’ faces and fuel long days of hard work.

This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with Texas Brave and Strong—Tidbits of Texas History you didn’t learn in School.  Ya’ll come back.