Some people may think that a chuck wagon was part of every traveling caravan, however, this was not the case. The chuck wagon was invented specifically for the use of the Texas cowboys who were driving their herds along the trail to the closest rail head or market.
While some form of mobile kitchens did exist along the overland trails and had for generations, the invention of the Chuck Wagon is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher and co-founder of the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
Before the railroad reached Texas, competition was stiff in recruiting good cowboys willing to spend the long weeks on the cattle trail driving large herds to the Kansas rail heads or markets in other states. In the early days of the great trail drives, each cowboy was responsible for his own meals and had to make do with what he could carry with him.
Charles Goodnight saw this as not only a problem, but also as an opportunity to hire the best cowboys and soon came up with a solution. In 1866, he created the prototype for the chuck wagon by purchasing a Studebaker wagon, a durable army-surplus wagon, and hiring a good cook. With the help of the cook, the two outfitted the wagon with steel axles that could withstand the hard terrain, and added boxes, shelves, and drawers for the cook. The two developed an efficient layout with a “chuck box” at the back of the wagon, which was a sloping box with a hinged lid that lay down to provide a flat working surface. Inside the chuck box were drawers and shelves to hold cooking tools and supplies. Beneath the chuck box was a “boot” to hold larger items such as the ever present dutch oven. The average chuck wagon was about 10 feet long and 38-40 inches wide.
A water barrel and coffee mill were attached to the outside of the wagon and canvas or cowhide, called the “possum belly” was suspended beneath to carry firewood and cow chips. Waterproof tarps held up by bows covered the wagon to keep everything dry. A chuck wagon “fly”, or canvas awning, was often attached to the top of the chuck box that could be rolled out in case of rain. In the front of some of the wagons was a jockey box, which was used for storing tools and heavier equipment needed on the trail. Larger ranches often had a second wagon to carry bedrolls, tents, spare saddles, and extra supplies. However, in smaller outfits, the wagon box of the chuck wagon was used to carry the drover’s personal items and bedrolls, as well as any other need items such as bulk food supplies, water, tools, feed for the horses, medicine, needles and thread, etc. The chuck wagon was sometimes drawn by oxen, but, more often by mules. Before long, the chuck wagon was adopted by trail drovers across the west, as well as loggers, prospectors, and others traveling in groups.
The term “chuck wagon” is attributed to two different sources, one saying that it was named after “Chuck” Goodnight, and the other saying that it comes from the slang term for food – “chuck.”
Food carried in the chuck wagon was generally easy-to-preserve items such as beans, salted meats, coffee, onions, potatoes, lard, and flour to make biscuits. Beef was something that was never in short supply and a good chuck wagon cook knew how to prepare it in many different ways. Fried steak was the most common and also the general favorite; but, pot roasts, short ribs, and stew were often served.
A general perception of the chuck wagon was that the cowboys lived on beans; and though the cook sometimes did make them, it was not that common, as they took too long to cook. The cook was not limited to only those items stored in the chuck wagon, but, food was also gathered en route.
On these long trail drives, that often were as much as 1,000 miles in length and could last as long as five months, the cook became a very important part of the team – even more so than the trail drovers.
Second only to the Trail Boss, the cook not only made the meals along the trail, but also acted at times, as barber, dentist, and banker. As the only real benefit on the long cattle trail, the morale of the men and the smooth functioning of the camp depended largely upon him, so much so, that even the Trail Boss often deferred to him. A trail boss was usually paid about $100 to $125 a month, the cook about $60, and the drovers, from $25-40.
The cook became so important to the trail drive, that he was soon dubbed with a number of nicknames including Coosie and Cookie, which were the most common; but also gained a number of others, such as Soggy, Pot Rustler, Lean Skillet, Old Pud, Old lady, Belly Cheater, Biscuit Roller, Dough Boxer, Dough Puncher, Greasy Belly, Grub Worm, Gut Robber, Sourdough, and more. Even though some of these nicknames were not necessarily complimentary and wagon cooks often had the reputation of being ill-tempered, not a soul on the crew ever dared to complain. Breakfast and dinner was the highlight of day. On the other hand, a cook who didn’t get the meals ready on time, would be very quickly subject to ridicule.
So why was Cookie so ill-tempered? Especially given the fact that he didn’t work as hard as the drovers during the day. While his job may not have required as much effort during daylight hours, he was always operating on less sleep and still had to be awake to drive the chuck wagon, constantly look for and gather fuel, including wood and cow chips, and collect additional food supplies along the way.