After watching numerous old western shows about cattle drives, most of us would automatically assume that a chuckwagon is a staple on any cattle drive. That is not the case, however. In the early years of cattle drives, the cowboys were supposed to supply their own food, and had to survive on what they could forage and carry. With that in mind, hiring cowboys for the drive was tough. Cowboys were usually paid about $25 to $40 a month, so to have to buy food out of that too, doesn’t make cattle driving a “get rich quick” kind of job. Basically, cattle ranchers ended up with people who couldn’t get a job anywhere else, and they usually weren’t loyal or very good at their job. They might even walk off the job before the drive was over.
It was a big problem for ranchers, who needed to have reliable, as well as capable cowboys to work the drives. Finally, one rancher, a man named Charles Goodnight, while pondering the problem he had in getting good working cowboys for his cattle drive. Then, he hit upon an idea. Goodnight created a type of field kitchen covered wagon. It is unknown if the name comes from the fact that the inventor is Charles (Chuck) or if it referenced chuck as a slang term for food. “Goodnight modified a Studebaker-manufactured covered wagon, a durable Civil War army-surplus wagon, to suit the needs of cowboys driving cattle from Texas to sell in New Mexico. He added a ‘chuck box’ to the back of the wagon, with drawers and shelves for storage space and a hinged lid to provide a flat working surface. A water barrel was also attached to the wagon and canvas was hung underneath to carry firewood. A wagon box was used to store cooking supplies and cowboys’ personal items.” It is said that Goodnight’s main motivation for the chuckwagon, was to be able to hire a better class of cowboy and keep them throughout the cattle drive.
“Chuckwagon food typically included easy-to-preserve items such as baked beans, salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Food would also be gathered en route. There was no fresh fruit, vegetables, or eggs available, and meat was not fresh unless an animal was injured during the run and therefore had to be killed. The meat they ate was greasy cloth-wrapped bacon, salt pork, and beef, usually dried, salted or smoked. On cattle drives, it was common for the “cookie” who ran the wagon to be second in authority only to the “trailboss.” The cookie would often act as cook, barber, dentist, and banker.” A typical trail boss made $100 to $125 a month, and the cook usually made about $60. The cook was vital to the cattle drive and was not to be crossed. The men were to keep their distance from the chuckwagon, because dust would get in the food. The horses left camp downwind of the chuckwagon for the same reason. No one dared take the last serving of food until they were sure that everyone had been served. To leave food on their plates was an insult to the cook. The cooks had long days…up before dawn to prepare food. After the men left for work, they cleaned up camp and washed dishes, then went to the next camp site to begin dinner for the men’s arrival. After dinner they cleaned up and went to bed. The next day would soon arrive. They more than earned their wage and the special wagon they got to use.