It was as important to a successful cattle drive as the drovers themselves. The chuckwagon is what made sure the cowboys had hot meals while driving cattle herds north to the railroad towns in Kansas and elsewhere.
As a side note, the term Chuckwagon is spelled as both one word and as two. You’ll see both Chuckwagon and Chuck Wagon used.
Another interesting fact is that the word “chuck” was derived from 1700’s English meat merchants where it was used to describe a lower priced meat.
You might think that the chuckwagon was simply a wagon transporting food. Of course any horse drawn wagon could transport food and supplies but the chuckwagon was different. It’s creation is generally credited to one well known rancher of the 1800’s..
Charles Goodnight’s Invention
The chuckwagon was developed in 1866 by Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher who is also referred to as the “father of the Texas Panhandle“. Goodnight essentially modified a Studebaker Wagon. This was a wagon built by the Studebaker brothers whose family first arrived in America during the 1700’s. The Studebaker family would later go on to be early American automakers.
Originally the Studebaker brothers were blacksmith’s in South Bend Indiana. Later they would form a company to build horse drawn wagons. The Studebaker’s business was helped by the demand created by the California Gold Rush. Later the brothers won a large government contract to build wagons for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. These two events made for a lucrative manufacturing business.
What was a Studebaker Wagon? The Studebaker Road Wagon resembles to a degree a conestoga wagon that the pioneers are pictured traveling along in wagon trains. Four wheels and a wood body. The Studebaker Road Wagon however was much better. Made of rosewood, the Studebaker Wagon was considered very durable, easy to handle and a quality made product. Studebaker would also be a top producer of what would be called “farm wagons”.
An interesting side note is that when you’ve seen the Budweiser Clydesdale horses pulling that wagon loaded with beer they are pulling a Studebaker Wagon.
The year 1866 was an important one for ranchers in Texas. While the Civil War raged for five years, the number of heads of cattle in Texas grew enormously. The Civil War kept shipments quite low and when the war ended there was more cattle in Texas than ever before. While the big cattle drives as we know them started after the Civil War, cattle had been driven from Texas to Louisiana as far back as 1836.
How the Chuck Wagon was Built
As mentioned above, rancher Charles Goodnight took a Studebaker Wagon and made modifications. He built a pantry box on it’s rear end that had a hinged door. The hinged door would lay flat to serve as a table. The cook would use this table as a work area.
Shelves and drawers were built in to keep the cook’s gear and supplies in easy reach. Invention is the father of necessity and what Charles Goodnight did was merely take a surplus supply wagon and convert it to a mobile kitchen. Goodnight well knew that a cowboy was a much better worker when he could eat well while on the trail. The key to eating well on the trail was to be able to have a “hot meal“. Cattle drives could easily last two months or so therefore the Chuck Wagon had to be constructed to last. The old Studebaker surplus wagon bought from the army was a durable wagon.
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Today’s Celebrations of the Chuck Wagon
Many communities and associations, mostly in the western U.S., put on events during the year that include chuck wagon cooking. One of these is at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. The museum has been celebrating the Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children’s Cowboy Festival for twenty-three years as of this writing.
Another interesting event is put on by the American Chuck Wagon Association. The association hosts several events throughout the country each year. The association will help those wishing to put on Chuck Wagon competitions. The ACWA was formed in 1997 in Bryson Texas. It’s goal is to preserve the heritage of the chuck wagon. For more information about this group see website www.americanchuckwagon.org.
Every October in LLano Texas you can attend the Llano Texas Chuck Wagon Cookoff. Chuck Wagons are set up in the morning and authenticity judging takes place later. Llano is located southwest of the Dallas/Fort Worth area and northwest of Austin. For more information see website www.llanochuckwagoncookoff.com
The New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe is featuring a very large exhibit about cowboys lasting through March 16, 2014. The exhibit is titled Cowboys Real and Imagined. Among many artifacts and photographs on display is a Chuck Wagon. This is one of the best exhibits of cowboy artifacts and information assembled under one roof.
(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)