Our modern day chuck wagon was developed by Charles Goodnight in 1866 for his first drive from Fort Belkamp, Texas to Denver, Colorado to help the long drive, 2,000 plus cattle and plenty of men to feed.
His first wagon was a refurbished military wagon; it’s most important feature was a sloping box the width of the wagon added onto on the rear with a hinged lid that lowered to become a counter. The box was outfitted with shelves and drawers for holding food and utensils. It was deep enough and tall enough to carry an assortment of goods, from medicines to beans. Food was called chuck by these cowpokes, so hence the name of chuck wagon was attached to the conveyance
This idea for a traveling kitchen was greatly appreciated, and became very popular over the following years. The design of all of these future wagons was pretty similar. Created from sturdy four wheeled wagons; these wagons were developed for different terrains. Smaller wheeled wagons were used primarily for drives that went through prairies and desserts, while a larger wheeled mountain wagon was developed to help with the steep and winding trails of the mountains and hills. Most wagons carried, slung beneath the wagon from corner to corner a canvas or hide tarp, called a possum belly, used to store gathered fire supplies; wood, cow chips and the like.
Wood was a pretty scarce item on the trail and scavenged during the day’s trip by riders and cooks alike, to be used for cooking and warmth at evening camp.
The chuck wagon is where the riders came at the end of a long day, gathering around to take their turn with a bowl of beans, some sour dough biscuits, and on a good day, a peach cobbler. Towns and outposts scattered along the trail supplied additional food to the wagons, bushels of corn, flour, sugar and the prized canned peaches. Even though the crew was pushing upwards to 2 or 3 thousands of cattle, the cattle were for sale, not food, and it was logistically difficult to carry fresh meat. The drivers themselves often supplied the meat, shooting a grouse or rabbit and giving it to the Cookie, and if a cow inadvertently died, tumbling down an arroyo, or otherwise meeting with an accident, well, chicken fried steak was the meat of the night. Young calves were also butchered for meat; this young stock was at great danger on the drive from the elements and predators.
The Cookie himself, along with the wagon, was as important as a trail boss, he was the man who got up early every morning, prepared a fire, made hot coffee and hot beans for the men, then tossing everything back into the wagon, took off hell-bent for the next stretch of 20 to 30 miles, only to stop and start again, have camp ready, fire burning, and food cooked for the crew of hungry riders when they got to came. Cookie was king, dispenser of food, medical care, and an occasional kick in the rear for a wayward cowboy.
The chuck wagon has endured, and is still used today on the trails, on ranch drives, as an outfitter for adventure ranches, or a competition vehicle for authentic chuck wagon cook offs. The chuck wagon is one bit of western lore that has moved with us into the 21st century with grace and authenticity. Its classic design has endured from day one.
So the next time you hear a dinner bell a jangling and a voice yelling come and get it grubs on, you had best hurry, because Cookie has no time for stragglers!