The Cowboy’s Home on Wheels
by LeeAnn Blankenship
Texas rancher Charles Goodnight had a problem. He needed skilled cowboys to drive his herd of two thousand longhorn cattle to New Mexico to be sold. He couldn’t offer high wages. He couldn’t promise easy jobs or even nice weather. But he decided that decent, warm meals might entice men to work for him. In the mid- to late 1800s, cattle drives sometimes took three to four months, and once the drive began, there were no stores for hundreds of miles. All the food and supplies needed for the trip were carried on two-wheeled carts. Usually, the cowboy’s food was boring and unappetizing.
Goodnight went to work and solved the problem. His invention of a mobile kitchen, the chuck wagon, got its name from the cowboy word for food, “chuck.” Goodnight took a surplus Army wagon and rebuilt it with Osage orange, a wood so tough that Indians used it to make bows. The wagon’s iron axles were stronger than the wooden ones found on standard wagons, and the wider wheels lasted longer. At the back of the wagon, Goodnight designed a big cabinet, called a chuck box, with a number of compartments and drawers. Cups, plates, eating utensils, flour, sugar, spices, dried fruit, pinto beans, and a keg for sourdough for biscuits could be stored separately there. One special drawer, called the possible drawer, held everything from first-aid supplies to needles and thread.
A hinged lid at the bottom of the chuck box folded down onto a swinging leg. This made a good worktable for the cook. The wagon also had a water barrel with spigot; a toolbox; a coffee grinder; and a smaller box, the boot, for heavy pots and pans. Stretched underneath was a large piece of rawhide, the possum belly, for carrying fuel for fires. The wagon also had a canvas top and room not only for bulky food items but also for extra clothing and bedrolls. The first chuck wagon was an instant success. Eighteen cowhands joined Goodnight and his partner, Oliver Loving, to drive the cattle to New Mexico for a handsome profit. The route they took—later called the Goodnight-Loving Trail —became one of the most heavily used cattle trails in the Southwest.
The chuck wagon soon was the backbone of all successful cattle drives. Other ranchers created their moving kitchens, and eventually the Studebaker Company produced chuck wagons that sold for $75 to $100 apiece, about $1,000 today. The chuck wagon was much more than a mobile kitchen. Sometimes called “the trail drive’s mother ship,” it was like a magnet that drew the men together. The wagon and the ground around it were the cowboy’s home. There he enjoyed hot meals, a warm fire, and good companionship. He could also get a bandage, a haircut, or horse liniment for his sore muscles. And there, under the stars and around the chuck wagon, he crawled into his bedroll each night. The “cookie” was usually paid twice as much as an average cowhand.
Though cowboys took their orders from the trail boss, the cook was king of the chuck wagon. Usually a retired cowhand, the cook was the hardest-working member of the trail team. He was the first up in the morning and the last in bed at night. Besides making meals, the cook packed and drove the chuck wagon, doctored sick or injured cowboys, pulled teeth, trimmed hair, repaired clothing, and settled bets and arguments.
Cooks were often grouchy and seemed to enjoy their reputations for being ill-tempered. It was said, “Crossin’ a cook is as risky as braidin’ a mule’s tail” and “Only a fool argues with a skunk, a mule, or a cook.”
A good cook was essential to the drive’s success. One cowboys recalled, “A camp cook could do more toward making life pleasant . . .than any other man in the outfit.” A good cook tried to offer a varied menu, even though he was limited to items that could be stored for weeks at a time. Cowboys ate plenty of beans, rice, sourdough biscuits, salt pork, and strong coffee. Dessert was a spoon of molasses, an occasional pie, stewed tomatoes sweetened with sugar, or dried fruit such as apples, peaches, or prunes. The need for long drives lessened by the 1890s, when railroads started running through cattle country. By then, Charles Goodnight’s chuck wagon had found its place in history and in the hearts of thousands.