Wild West Podcast

From Cowboy Humor to Cattle Drive Logistics: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Chuck Wagon Era

January 13, 2023 Michael King/Brad Smalley
Wild West Podcast
From Cowboy Humor to Cattle Drive Logistics: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Chuck Wagon Era
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Looking to get your cowboy boots dirty and take a wild ride through time? We're here to give you a taste of the cattle industry's past, bringing the Chuck Wagon's pivotal role into the present day. Join us as we unpack the rich history and fascinating intricacies of this mobile kitchen, all while serving up some hearty cowboy tales to wet your appetite for the Old West.

Promise us you're ready for a good chuckle, because we're pulling back the curtain on cowboy humor, revealing the practical jokes that kept spirits high around the Chuck Wagon. Imparting a hearty dose of cowboy wisdom, we delve into the strategic cattle drive logistics that were as important to a successful drive as the grub served up by the Chuck Wagon's cook. Speaking of the cook, get to know this key player who was responsible not only for stoking the fires of the Chuck Wagon but also the morale of cowboys on the long trail. So, dust off those cowboy hats and join us for a rollicking ride through a bygone era!

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Speaker 1:

At roundup time or on a five month trail drive that covered 1500 miles. The Chuck wagon was an essential piece of equipment in the cattle industry and the cook was the most important person. More than any other man, the cook ensured the men were happy and productive. Without good food, men would quit and the work would not get done. So it was well said among the cowboys before meal time, making on the pan. Coffee in the pot. Get up, get it, get it while it's hot. Wild West podcast proudly presents the Chuck wagon part seven. Stay with us after this episode as Mike and I further explore the importance of the Chuck wagon on a cattle drive.

Speaker 1:

Feeding cowboys on long drives to northern cattle markets demanded planning and ingenuity. Early drovers usually packed food, bedding and gear on horse for mules and had to cook for themselves. Their meager and monotonous meals consisted of biscuits or cornbread, salted or dried meat, occasional wild game and coffee. An early description of a Chuck wagon was described by a writer who watched one being loaded in front of the grocery store at Matagorda, texas, early in 1874. He noted the outfit of a Texas drove is a scientific fit. Their seldom is a cover to the wagon. It's too much trouble. The hole is exposed to the public gaze. There are kegs of molasses, jugs of vinegar, boxes of bacon, sugar and various other provisions. Some things are strapped to the sides in a helter, skelter but perfectly secure manner. Sometimes bundles of kindling are tied to the hind axle.

Speaker 1:

According to historians, charles Goodnight, a rancher and drover, is credited with inventing the Chuck wagon. The first Chuck wagon was used in 1867 on a trail drive from central Texas to New Mexico. Charles Goodnight purchased an Army surplus ammunition wagon with iron axles and had the legs of a Clark's riding desk. The traveler's portable riding desks and mess chests may have inspired Goodnight to attach a hinged wooden cover to a wagon for food preparation on the trail. When unfolded, the cover of this Chuck box formed a working surface with access to shelves and drawers filled with staples, spices, utensils and medicine.

Speaker 1:

The Chuck wagon's distinctive feature was the Chuck box, a four by three foot box two or three feet deep, located on the rear of the wagon. A board hinged at the bottom of the box folded down to form a work table. The box was divided into cubby holes and drawers for small amounts of food, medicines, eating utensils, cooking equipment, tobacco and perhaps whiskey. Elsewhere they tucked a Dutch oven skillets, a water barrel, flour or shoeing equipment, branding irons, tools and bed rolls Everything needed to care for the cowboys and keep them happy and working. Some wagons had a cow hide cradle suspended between axles for kindling, or dry manure used for fire starting, a toolbox, coffee grinder, lantern, water barrel and ropes typically hung along the sides. Canned goods, dried fruit, fresh and salt and meat, and bulk staples such as flour, beans, potatoes, molasses and coffee and lard occupy the wagon bed, along with bed rolls and firearms.

Speaker 1:

Cold biscuit shooters, potrasslers, belly cheaters and worse, trail cooks were in demand and the best commanded top wages. Although their dishes were simple, many acquired colorful nicknames. A concoction of raisins and rice became known as spotted pup and a gelatin dessert was christened shivering lizz. Beans were prairie whistles or peca strawberries, pancakes splattered abs, molasses or syrup lick and coffee belly wash. After supper, trail hands might tell stories, sing songs or recite poetry around the chuck wagon before sleeping or taking a shift guarding the herd. Jack Thorpe, an Easterner turned cowboy who wrote songs of the cowboys, described a chuck wagon supper for the New Mexico Federal Writers Project of WPA days Never before published. It gives a clear picture of what it was like to experience a cook at work on the trail.

Speaker 1:

A chuck wagon arrives at Malagro Springs. The cook, who had been driving, hollers whoa mule to the team of four which has been pulling the load. Getting off the seat, he throws down the lines. He calls to the horse wrangler, who is in the remuda of saddle horses following the wagon, to gobble them up, meaning to unhitch the team and turn them into the remuda. The cook now digs a pit behind the chuck wagon so when a fire is built, wind will not blow sparks over the camp and the punchers surrounding it. The chuck wagon is always stopped with a wagon tongue facing the wind. This is done so the fire will be protected by the wagon and chuck box. With a rope down, the horse wrangler drags wood for the fire, the many bedding rolls are thrown off the wagon and the cook brings forth his irons. Two of them are some four feet long, sharpened one end and with an eye on the other end. The third is a half inch bar of iron some six feet long. Once he has driven the two sharpened irons into the ground above the pit, the long iron is slipped through the eyes of the two iron uprights. This complains the pot rack or stove.

Speaker 1:

Cossie, as the cook is usually called, which is an abbreviation of the Spanish word cosonero, hangs a half dozen or so S hooks of iron some six inches long on the suspended bar, and to the ease are hooked coffee pot, stew pots and kettles for hot water. The rear end of the wagon contains the chuck box, which is securely fastened to the wagon box proper. The chuck box cover or lid swings down on hinges, making a table for Cossie to mix his bread, cut his meat upon and make anything that may suit his fancy. There are several dishes whose names cannot be found in any dictionary, so consequently, not knowing how to spell them, I omit. There is an unwritten law that no cow puncher may ride his horse on the windward side of the chuck box or fire, or Cossie is liable to ride him off with a pot hook or axe. This breach of manners would be committed only by some green hand or cotton picker, as Cossie would probably call him. This rule is made so no trash or dirt will be stirred up and blown into the skillets.

Speaker 1:

The cosonero, now having his fire built with a pot hook and hand, an iron rod some three feet long with a hook bent in its end, lifts the heavy Dutch bake oven lid by its loop and places it on the fire, then the oven itself and places it on top of the lid to heat. These ovens are skillets about eight inches in depth and some two feet across generally, but they come in all sizes, being used for baking bread and cooking meat, stew, potatoes and so forth. The coffee pot is of galvanized iron, holding from three to five gallons and hanging on the pot rack full of hot coffee for whoever may pass. Sometimes a pudding is made of dried bread, raisins, sugar, water and a little grease, also nutmeg and spices. This is placed in a Dutch oven and cooked until the top is brown. This is the usual cow camp meal, but if there is no beef in the wagon, beans and chili are substituted.

Speaker 1:

Then Cossie, in a huge bread pan, begin to mix his dough. After filling the pan about half full with flour, he adds sour dough poured out of a jar or tin bucket which is always carried along, add salt, soda and lard or warm grease, working all together into a dough which presently will become second story biscuits. After the dough has been kneaded, he covers it over and for a few minutes lets it raise. A quarter of a beef is taken from the wagon, where it's been wrapped in canvas to keep it cool. Slices are cut off and placed in one of the Dutch ovens into which grease, preferably tallow, has been put. The lid is laid on and, with a shovel, red hot coals are placed on top. While this is cooking, another skillet is filled with sliced potatoes and given the same treatment as the meat. Now the bread is molded into biscuits and put into another Dutch oven. These biscuits are softer than those made with baking powder and each is padded out, it is dropped into the hot grease and turned over. These biscuits are then put into the bake oven tight together until the bottom of the container is full. Now comes the success or failure of the operation. The secret is to keep the Dutch oven at just the right heat, adding or taking off the right amount of hot coals from underneath the oven, on top of the lid. If everything goes right, you may be assured of the best hot biscuits in the world.

Speaker 1:

Along in the evening, as the men are through with the days round up for drive, tired horses are turned into the remuda and cosy hollers come and get it or all throw it out. The punchers in their shafts, boots and spurs flock to the chuck wagon and out of the drawer get knives, forks and spoons and, off the lid of the chuck box, take plates and cups. That cosy is laid out. Then they go to the different bake ovens and fill their plates which, like cups, are made of tin. The knives, spoons and forks are of iron or composition. Lots of banter usually passes between the punchers and cosy, though he generally gives as good as he receives Plates filled.

Speaker 1:

The boys sit around on the different rolls of bedding, the wagon tongue or with cross legs, either squatting on the ground or with their packs against a wagon wheel. Of course there is no tablecloth on the chuck box lid, but it's usually scrubbed clean enough for the purpose of eating, though no one uses it. As the boys finish their meal, plates, cups, knives, forks and spoons are thrown into a large dish pan placed on the earth underneath the chuck box lid. If some luckless puncher should place his eating tools on top of the lid, he would be sure to be bawled out by cosy. All the eating tools, when washed, are put on shelves or in drawers of the chuck box, while the heavy Dutch ovens and such are put into the box bolted underneath the wagon bed at its rear end. This is the real chuck wagon and the way of eating as found in New Mexico, though some northern outfits have a different layout From the Cimarron River north as grass grows many outfits have elaborate lays. Punchers with a large tent or tarp spread over the wagon and extending out on both sides are called Pullman outfits by real punchers. Old hands will tell you that they use them so the punchers won't get sunburned, and usually add bless their little hearts, also explaining with very straight faces that these Pullman boys usually wear white shirts and are obliged to shave and shine their boots every morning before starting work.

Speaker 1:

Frequently, the chuck wagon cook was a stove-up cowboy who could no longer handle regular range chores, but he soon became master of his small vital kingdom, guarding it jealously from any encroachments. Even the cattle owner was expected to stay out of the 60-foot circle surrounding the wagon Range. Etiquette required that a horseman slow his steed when nearing the cook wagon to avoid stirring up dust or the cook's temper. The body of the wagon, as Jack Thorpe noted, usually carried bedrolls for the hands, but the rest of the rig was the cook's domain. One old timer recalled a double killing that arose out of a cowboy's brashness.

Speaker 1:

French and a fellow named Hinton got into it over Hinton digging into the chuck box, which was against Frenchie's rule. As it was with any good cookie. They did not want the bodies messing up the chuck box. Hinton seemed to get a kick out of seeing Frenchie get riled. Frenchie never refused to give anyone a handout, but Hinton insisted upon helping himself. The evening that the fight took place, hinton walked past Frenchie and dove into the chuck box. Frenchie went after Hinton with a carving knife and Hinton drew his gun. The cookie kept going into Hinton's slashing with his knife and Hinton kept backing away, shooting all the while trying to get away from the knife. But Frenchie never hesitated. Finally he drove the knife into Hinton's breast. They both went to the ground and died a few minutes after.

Speaker 1:

An Ordinary Day In the Life of a Chuckwagon Cook While the Cowboys took their chefs. Cookie got to sleep through the night, but morning came all too soon, way before most of the men would arise Up. At around 3 am he had to grind the coffee beans, build a new fire, hook the large coffee pot to a pot rack, suspend it over the fire pit and get it brewing. He would heat his heavy Dutch ovens and lids when the flames were ablazing. Now the pressure was on. While Cowboys would be fools to defame the cook, the cook risked his reputation, respect and livelihood if he failed to get the men's meals served on time. So he was tasked to feed the crew three meals every day of the drive, no matter the weather, the terrain, predators, animal, reptile or human, or his personal circumstances. As the pots heated, he tossed a generous clump of beef fat into each and then headed to his work table where he cut and salted steaks and formed a loaf of dough in a pan. When these were done, he dropped the steaks into the now hot Dutch oven, plucked off dough to make biscuits, dipped each one in tallow, placed them in the bread oven in the cooking trench, put the lid on and shoveled hot coals around and over the pot to bake the bread.

Speaker 1:

When the chuck or grub was ready, the cook shouted to the men who, after washing up, picked up tin plates, cups, knives and forks and stood in line to get their share. There were no tables and chairs. The men sat where they wanted or could on the bare ground or on a bed, roll, a log, a rock or a lap serving his trays or tables. Afterward they tossed their dirty dishes, utensils and cups into a large bin known as the rec pan, and woe to the cowboy who did not.

Speaker 1:

As soon as the cowboy is saddled up and took off, cookie went into action washing and drying the dishes, storing the bed rolls, wrapping the Dutch ovens and burlap bags and stowing them, along with the racks and the boot. Other utensils he hung on the side hooks and hangers. Next he would hitch up the mules and move out to find a good spot for lunch. But as he trekked to the new location, he, and sometimes even the cowboys, would always be on the lookout for kindling to light his fires, and when he found some he'd store it in an apartment under the wagon called the Possum Belly. Cookie would find an excellent spot to set up for lunch and be already planning the evening meal. If he were good at his job or were simply in a good mood that day, he'd use his imagination and change up the usual salted beef with a soup or stew, whip up a rice pudding, dessert pastry or pie made from dried fruit to give the men a much needed treat.

Speaker 1:

After the trail boss decided on an excellent site to spend the night. Cookie would get ready for supper. First he'd dig his trench fire, set up racks and put the coffee on. Then, if necessary, and only with the permission of the trail boss, he'd slaughter an inferior steer for the following few days' meals. The evening camp was for sharing stories, relaxing and renewing energy, and they'd enjoy a song or two of the driver lucky enough to have a cowboy with musical talent. But sunrise would come around soon enough and after a bit of social time the men who were not on night watch slipped into their bedrolls for a well-deserved sleep, as did Cookie, who had already prepared for breakfast.

Speaker 1:

Jokes Around the Chuck Wagon, the breaking yan of a tenderfoot, was always a source of unbounded amusement for the cow punchers. Every outfit was dominated by these practical jokers, who were rarely hesitated, even at the risk of inflicting injury to the victims. Jokes like the one told here mostly occurred in the venting around the Chuck Wagon. As soon as Manning and Tucker became convinced that the boys in camp were all asleep, they got busy and began to carry out the plot by detaching the chains from the Chuck Wagon and gathering all articles of tinware that would make as much noise as possible. When the preparations were complete, they ran over their companion's sleeping forms, rattling the chains in tinware, fixing their six shooters and shouting Whoa, whoa, whoa, look out, boys, here comes the Indians.

Speaker 1:

Of course, pandemonium broke loose in that cow camp. Everybody jumped to their feet and, amid the bewildering confusion of the sudden onslaught, those onto the game grasped their six shooters and began firing, and two fell to the ground, exclaiming I'm shot boys. In the meantime, the tenderfoot from Tennessee sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and ran like a scared turkey. At least half an hour before Judge Lynch could quiet the hilarious laughter, a searching party was sent out, and it was more than an hour before the tenderfoot was located in a gully covered with undergrowth. It took all the persuasive powers of the entire outfit to induce Tennessee to return to camp. Then he was so badly frightened that he would not lie down but spent the remainder of the night on the alert.

Speaker 2:

Brad, I'd like to spend a little bit of time talking about the Chuck wagon, and one of the things that we discovered during the writing and the research of the Chuck wagon was one thing that came up in the podcast was the fact that Cook would prepare a lunch for the Cowboys. Let's talk a little bit about that. Why is it that the lunch may have not been true in this story?

Speaker 1:

Well now I can't rightly assume that in this particular account it was not true. I just can't imagine that was very common. Certainly this is the only account that I have personally ever read or even experienced in life today. I mean, there's still plenty of working trail hands roundups out there on the range for often weeks at a time, and the Chuck wagon is still a very, very active part of that, as at this point I'd even call him celebrity chef.

Speaker 1:

Kent Rollins would be sure to tell you, in early breakfast and a late dinner was generally all these trail jovers would get Meantime. The Chuck wagon course would be busy heading along the trail In the afternoon hours they'd be the advanced guard to where they would be set up about, ready to go by the time the rest of the trail drive arrived on site During the daytime hours lunch hours I guess, if you will, a cowboy who just needed a tide over a snack could very easily just ride past the wagon and sing out to the cook here, whoever driving the wagon, and ask for it. It would be a hard cook indeed who would not supply that.

Speaker 2:

Over at one of the things that I also have to take into account of this lunch theory. They had to make so many miles a day in order to get the cattle to their destination, the location of the wagon, the Chuck wagon. When they were herding cattle, did the wagon go ahead and then arrive before they camp?

Speaker 1:

Well, mike, you got a couple of layers in that questionnaire, but first you're exactly right. A three meal a day cow camp would be getting nowhere fast. Unloading, preparing and stocking the chuck wagon was no small affair. It was quite a massive undertaking even though any cook worthy of salt had it down to a science very early on. So pausing again in the middle of the day for any length of time to unpack chuck wagon, cook a meal, load it all back up, wash the dishes, get everything set and ready to go and then get back in advance of the herd to set up and do the whole thing for a third time for an evening meal, however late that might have been, was just nonsensical. It makes absolutely no sense logistically, time-wise, and the only way that I could assume that a three meal a day cow camp with a noon lunch, whatever happened, is if these guys really didn't plan on getting anywhere on any schedule.

Speaker 2:

So, basically, the third meal may have occurred during their downtime, when a river was overflowing and they had to wait for it to go down or recede. Yes, the only thing that I could ever think of. When they got to a point in the trail that they couldn't move any further, I could see them carrying a biscuit in their saddle bag. So then again, that brings up the whole idea of where the wagon was on the trail. And did the wagon take off in the morning before they started hurting the cattle, or was it the same time, or did they leave later?

Speaker 1:

Well, to begin with, the placement of the check wagon at any time of day would always, very specifically, be upwind of the herd, which just stands to reason. That's just basic cowboy logic, you know. Always be upwind to the herd for, if no other reason, the Lano Esticado, the southern plains, are known for wide open spaces and lots and lots of wind. As we mentioned a couple of times during this particular episode, nothing could stir a cookie's ire more than a rude or ignorant cow hand possibly both rude and ignorant riding on the upper side of the wagon and kicking up dirt and dust that could then be blown into the hard cooked and well planned meal. For the rest of the cowboys, you know, a speck of dirt or dust in a biscuit could ruin a good cookie's reputation, and they did not take kindly to that. They were very much wards of their little mini empires, and devil take anybody who would mess with that.

Speaker 1:

In the morning, of course, they were always the first to be up and running. Breakfast would be ready when the cowboys were loading up, ready to go bringing the herd in checking for strays during the night. Breakfast would usually be a fairly quick affair. It would be hearty again, intended to get them through the day until what could quite possibly be a very late dinner, and then the wagon would generally take off ahead of the rest of the herd because again, all of the dirt and dust being kicked up from the herd would play hell with the stores of the chuck wagon if they were riding behind. So the wagon was always well ahead, certainly generally within reach for any cowboy who might need a quick bit of medical attention or some snack to tide them over. And eventually, later on in the evening they would get a little bit further ahead to where they could have a good set up. By the time the herd was ready to be bedded down for an evening meal that night.

Speaker 2:

So I have one last question about the chuck wagon and its travel along the trail. How did they know where to set up for the evening meal?

Speaker 1:

Well in the larger picture, mike, they knew where to set up for the same or in the same way and for exactly the same reason that you know the location of your favorite McDonald's or Longhorn Steakhouse, that's where you're going to go for dinner that night. These are well scouted, well laid, well traveled trails. Certainly after the first couple of years there were often times even in the occasional road ranch campsites that were well frequented. They knew what was safe, what was well sheltered, where there was water, where there was plenty of grass, open space big enough for the herd to travel, where the fords were. They knew this and it was just a matter of Getting there. That's it for now.

Speaker 1:

Remember to check out our Wild West podcast shows on iTunes podcast or at Wildwestpodcastbusproutcom. You can also catch us on Facebook, at facebookcom Wild West podcast or on our YouTube channel at Wild West podcast Mike King YouTube. So make sure you subscribe to our shows listed at the end of the description text of this podcast to receive notifications on all new episodes. Thanks for listening to our podcast. If you have any comments or would like to add to this series on cattle drives, cowboys and cattle towns, you can write us at Wild West podcast at gmailcom and we will share your thoughts as they apply to future episodes. Join us next time as we return to Dodge City and retell the story of the beautiful and lovely Dora hand.

Speaker 2:

You.

The Importance of the Chuck Wagon
The Chuck Wagon and Cowboy Meals
Chuck Wagon and Cattle Drive Logistics