Chuckwagon Focus of New Display
by Pat Hansen of Avon, MT
“Come and get it!” assured a saddle weary cowboy that Cookie, the chuckwagon cook, had prepared a hearty meal. Taking a tin plate and “eatin’ irons” from the chuckwagon box, the drover would load his plate from the Dutch ovens, pots and pans at the campfire, fill his tin cup with steaming black coffee, and locate a suitable place on the prairie to sit and eat.
Chuckwagons have become quite rare, although they can occasionally be found on large ranches, but most often in a parade or museum, such as the one owned by Vern Krinke of Auburn, Washington. Krinke, a ruggedly handsome man in his 70s, is a chuckwagon cook of extraordinary talent who prepares sumptuous dinners from his 80-130 year old Studebaker chuckwagon that he restored after finding it in a junk pile on a ranch southeast of Saratoga, Wyoming. Vern says preparing chuckwagon dinners is a hobby he took up after his retirement as a traveling salesman in the 1970s. He has fed more than 100,000 people over the years and says, “I’ve met many unbelievably nice folks.”
Charles Goodnight is credited with creating the first chuckwagon. After the Civil War he rebuilt a surplus army wagon by removing the end gate and adding the chuckbox to hold food and other necessities, bows and a wagon sheet so it looked similar to a covered wagon. Later wagons made by Bain, Studebaker and Schutler were used for chuckwagons.
Vern explained he was looking through a rancher’s large scrap pile for wooden wheels to go on a couple of old sheepwagons he had just purchased from him. “I couldn’t believe it when I found the carcass of this chuckwagon with all the ironwork and original Studebaker running gear.
Having done restorations of several other wagons, Vern set to work carefully restoring the chuckwagon. “The wood was weathered gray, but I discovered by putting linseed oil on it I could make out the lettering, then I made a stencil of the original. In a way, finding the old wagon was an accident that has had a profound effect on my life.”
The chuckbox is a cupboard approximately four feet high and two-three feet deep at the back end of the wagon. Rods extending through the chuckbox hold it firmly in place to the sideboards. Its rear wall slopes outward from top to bottom and is hinged at the bottom so that it can be swung down at right angles to form a working table, and is supported by a leg or legs fastened to the outer edge by rawhide hinges so that they can be folded flat against the outside when the box is closed.
Inside, the box is fitted with partitions, shelves and drawers – a place for each item. The larger divisions are for the sourdough jar, the partly used sack of flour, and the bulky utensils. There are convenient drawers for tin plates, cups, and ‘eatin’ irons’ (spoons, knives, and forks.) Within easy reach are coffee, sugar, beans, lard, rice, dried fruit, and molasses “lick”. Another section holds salt, pepper, soda, baking powder, and less bulky commodities, each in tins with tight-fitting lids to keep them from spilling when being jostled over rough country. On a trail drive the major part of the heavy supplies, such as flour, bacon, molasses, coffee, beans, canned goods, and the beef were carried in the bed of the wagon.
Every cook reserved a drawer for a few odds and ends, Vern calls this his ‘possibles’ drawer that includes shaving equipment, first aid supplies and liniment for horses and cowboys.
Attached to the bottom of many chuckwagons, under the chuckbox, was a smaller wooden box where Dutch ovens, pots and skillets were carried. A water barrel, fitted with a spigot, is fastened to one side of the wagon and often wrapped in a wet burlap sack or tarp to keep the water cool. Attached to the wagon box next to it is a washstand with enamel washbasin and polished metal mirror. On the other side of the wagon is a toolbox. Sometimes beneath the wagon bed a rawhide ‘cradle’ was fastened to the wagon’s running gear. It was filled with rocks when it was drying to stretch the hide, and later was filled with wood or cow chips to be used at the next camp. Some outfits attached a trailer to the back to haul firewood or chips.
Vern’s friend Kenny Lennerville, a ranch hand in Reeder, ND, was known far and wide for his chuckwagon dinners. “I thought, ‘what a great way to entertain people!’ So, in 1970 I asked if he would teach me the method,” Vern said. “Kenny agreed and I went to learn his methods and I don’t change the recipe even a pinch of salt.”
As a rule of thumb, he plans ¾ lb. of meat (beef, buffalo or lamb) per person, and always plans to have extra because people often want some to take home. The meat is cooked in a cavernous pit – 4’x16’x6’ deep – that has been filled with wood and allowed to burn for 12 hours, with wood being added all along. When the pit is nearly full of hot coals, a layer of dirt is thrown over it; the meat is prepared with salt and pepper, double wrapped in foil, wrapped in wet burlap sacks, and placed on the bed of hot coals. The pit is covered with plywood and dirt to seal out the air and the huge heat base in the earth slowly roasts the meat in its own juices for 22 hours. Vern says he has tried other seasonings on the meat, but nothing beats salt and pepper.
The meal includes prairie salad (coleslaw) marinated for 48 hours in a special recipe dressing; cowboy beans – pinto beans cooked with ham hocks seasoned with molasses and pepper; feather light biscuits; and for dessert a favorite of the trail drive cowboys – apple crisp or rhubarb crisp. Vern is pretty particular about his coffee made from beans ground by hand in a grinder that is 100 years old, then boiled in a 3-5 gallon coffee pot over the campfire till it is strong enough “ to float a horse shoe.”
“It’s been a labor of love,” he said of his chuckwagon hobby, “although I am disappointed that young people don’t seem to care about such historical activities.”
However, health problems are taking their toll and Vern is about to retire. For the next year his chuckwagon will be on loan to the Montana Frontier Museum in Deer Lodge, Montana. The chuckwagon camp display dominates the center of the museum and is authentic to the late 1800s and early 1900s with campfire, Dutch ovens, food supplies, water barrel, and wash-up area, cowboys’ soogans (bedrolls), saddles, trees and tumbleweeds.
“Man oh man, look at this!” Vern said as he saw the display for the first time. “I’ll bet that old chuckwagon thinks it died and went to heaven. It looks great and it’s getting a well deserved rest. You’ve done a great job,” he told museum curator Jim Haas.
After its tenure in Deer Lodge, the chuckwagon will be housed at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. “I’ve had offers to sell it,” Vern admitted, “but if I did, the money would be gone and so would be the memories.”
Chuckwagons & Chuckwagon Cooks
During the trail drives bringing cattle from Texas north and the era of the open range, chuckwagons and chuckwagon cooks were an important part of any ranch operation. While on the trail, the chuckwagon was the cowboys’ home where they’d eat, lounge near the campfire after a long day telling stories or playing cards, and later roll into their bedrolls.
Foremen knew that a well-fed man can stand a great deal of hardship, so a good cook was a valuable asset. Cooking over a campfire and having meals for 15-20 hungry men served on time through wind and dirt, snow, cold, rain and mud, was an art.
Cookie’s day started early when he awakened at 3 a.m. to prepare breakfast that was served as the rosy tinges of dawn lit the eastern horizon. Charlie Russell’s painting “Bronc to Breakfast” immortalized the chuckwagon, as have a number of songs. In Russell’s painting, a bronc and cowboy are raising havoc in the camp spilling coffee, kicking bacon and biscuits into the fire, stomping bedrolls, kicking ropes and hats, much to the cook’s consternation.
The wagon and 60 feet around it was considered the cook’s territory, but on this occasion at least, a snaky, a greenbroke bronc ignored the protocol. Seldom were horses tied to a wagon wheel or picketed too close to camp, and a rider approaching camp watched the direction of the wind and was careful not to raise dust to blow into the food.
There are those who say that cowboys didn’t eat beef while on a trail drive, but hardworking cowboys today like their beef and it was the same in those days. According to Ramon F. Adams in his book “The Story of the Old Cowboy Cook”, they would kill a beef, often a stray from another herd, late in the afternoon and the meat was hung to chill. In the early morning it was wrapped in tarps or slickers and placed in the wagon bed where the cowboys’ soogans (bedrolls) and other gear would be placed on top to hold its temperature and keep it from the day’s heat. This nightly cooling was repeated as long as the beef lasted. On occasion wild game or prairie chickens supplemented the basic diet. Andy Adams in his book “The Log of a Cowboy” tells of killing a couple of buffalo calves for meat. Some of the cowboy’s favorite meals were son-of-a-gun stew, or fried steaks cooked in the Dutch oven, and spotted pup – a rice and raisin dessert. A cold lunch often consisted of a can of tomatoes and perhaps a biscuit or jerky.
Dried beans were a staple food. Cooked with dried salt pork or bacon and seasoned with pepper and molasses they make a tasty and nutritious meal. Dried fruits – raisins, apples, prunes and apricots – were served stewed or in pies and puddings.
Cowboy etiquette called for a cowboy to clean his plate by sopping juices with his biscuit or scraping scraps into a ‘squirrel jar’ or into the fire, and putting his plate into the ‘wrecking barrel’, a large washtub used for washing dishes.
A chuckwagon cook was unusually resourceful. Besides being a cook he had to be a teamster able to handle a hitch of four horses or mules. He was expected to keep the harness mended and wagon in good repair. He was a doctor for man and beast, dentist, father confessor, banker, and barber. Cowboys considered the cook their friend, even though some cooks had a reputation for being cantankerous.