Cowboys on the trail needed good food reliably provided in order to maintain their endurance and keep them alert through long days in the saddle and hours of watching at night. Eating was one of their few actual pleasures, so meals were an important element in their day and good fare well cooked kept them loyal to the brand.
Originally, cowhands away from home had relied on what they could carry in their saddlebags, but in 1866 Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon. The word ‘chuck’ referred originally to an inferior cut of meat but had come to mean ‘hearty food’.
Goodnight modified and fitted out an army surplus Studebaker wagon. He added heavy duty running gear because of the rough terrain he knew his prototype would be crossing, and he built a large pantry box on the back with a hinged door that could be laid flat to create a table. Inside the pantry box he made shelves and drawers for food and cooking utensils.
The chuck wagon had a place for everything and everything would be in its place. Larger pots and frying pans went in a box underneath the pantry referred to as the ‘boot’. On one side of the wagon would be a large wooden water-barrel and on the other side, a tool box carrying tools for horseshoeing or mending tack. There was always a jack in case repairs needed to be made to the wheels, and a tool known as a ‘come-along’ which was a block and tackle rig that could be used to rescue the wagon if it got stuck in mud or on a rock. Sewing equipment and medical supplies were also carried, plus the cowboys’ bedrolls and rain slickers. A piece of canvas or steer hide, known as the possum belly, was slung underneath the wagon to hold the firewood which would be picked up along the way by the cowboys.
There were hoops fitted onto the wagon so that a cover, made from canvas treated with linseed oil to make it water resistant, could be stretched over the top and give headroom to move about underneath. The cover was called a bonnet. It was very similar to the ones used on covered wagons driven by pioneers along the Oregon Trail.
Some chuck wagons had a tent that could be pulled out from the back and propped on wooden poles so as to provide a covered area for cooking and for the cowboys to sit and eat their meal. In addition, if the basic chuck wagon wasn’t enough to carry everything that was needed, an extra single-axle wagon could be attached behind – called a ‘pup or a ‘hoodlum’.
The chuck wagon was pulled either by oxen, mules or horses, in paired teams of two or four depending on the weight of the load they had to cope with. A breed called Mammoth Jack, half donkey and half horse, was popular owing to its strength.
Cowboys loved the chuck wagon and how it always had a hot meal ready for them at the end of a hard day. Without it, their loyalty might well have waivered, and the trail boss could then have lost them to another brand which knew better how to satisfy both their stomachs and their tastebuds.