Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Chuck Wagon - Traveling Dinner Table of the Old West

The Chuck Wagon of the old west was a home, the dinner table, "the water cooler" and a traveling store. 
The Chuck Wagon on a cattle drive or roundup served all these requirements.

On the cattle drives the cook or "cookie" as he was called was second in rank to the trail boss. The cookie and the chuck wagon had to outpace the drovers and have the cowboys meals ready on time.

The chuck wagon was usually a converted army wagon with iron axles tough enough to withstand miles of rough western trails. There was a canvas cover that stretched over bentwood bows to keep out the rain and the midday sun.

There was also a tail gate. It served as a table and had drawers and shelves that carried food like corn meal, flour, potatoes etc. Under the tail gate was the "boot" where cooking pots and utensils were stored.

(this picture is from the book "Cowboys" by Martin Chandler)

Stuffed into corners of the tail gate were assorted items such as plugs of tobacco, bandages, needles and thread, a razor and strop and a bottle of whiskey used for medicinal purposes.

The chuck wagon also had a barrel on one side that contained 2 day supply of water and on the other side of the wagon, to counter balance, was a toolbox. It held branding irons, horseshoes and nails. And of course you could find the cooks staple- a dutch oven


The wagon bed itself carried bedrolls, war bags, corral ropes, guns, ammunition, lanterns, kerosene, and slickers. If a cowboy or lame calf was injured they would ride in the back of the wagon.

 The Studebaker Company was one of the major companies manufacturing the chuck wagons. They sold for $75-$200. A chuck wagon weighed 1600 lb empty. It could haul 3 tons. The chuck wagon was a virtual store on wheels-it carried everything from eggs to long guns and ammunition.

Here is a list of some of the items you could find in the chuck wagon-
salt pork
500lbs of dried beans
200lbs of green coffee beans
20 sacks of flour
10 sack of sugar (considered a luxury on the trails)
500lbs of bacon
2 sacks of corn meal
500 apples
6 boxes of dried prunes
15 boxes of canned corn
10 boxes of tomatoes
30lbs of raisins
100lbs of rice


(the picture is from the book "Cowboys" by Martin Chandler)

there was also spices such as cinnamon, salt, all spice, pepper, ginger, and of course syrup.

an extra wheel (to prevent iron rims from coming off the wooden wheels in hot and dry climates, it was best to find a shallow stream and soak the wheels until they swelled)

The Chuck Wagon of the old west could have been considered the "water cooler" of its day. Cowboys met there after a roundup or other event. They laid down by the chuck wagon at night to sleep and sat around it for every meal.

 At the center of this chuck wagon was the "cookie". He cooked the food, helped the injured and would always have a story of joke to tell.

The cook prepared the food over brush or buffalo chips. A typical meal plan of the cowboy while on a cattle drive was-

A breakfast consisted of eggs and salt pork. The cowboys preferred sourdough biscuits to those made with buttermilk or baking powder. This is where the dutch oven was so useful-to make the biscuits.

A cowboy's lunch consisted of some dried beef, dried fruit, some sourdough biscuits and perhaps a cup of coffee, if he had a saddle bag.

While on the trail canned tomatoes helped to quench a cowboys thirst. The acid in the tomato juice also helped to counter act the alkali dust inhaled by the cowboys on the trail.

 Dinner was the same as lunch with more meat and of course plenty of coffee!!!

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