Everyone loves a good meal. That applies just as accurately today as it did many years ago, in the early days of the chuckwagon. For a cowboy out on the trail, a good meal was hard to find. There weren’t many resources available, and there certainly wasn’t much free time either. Cowboys working to drive livestock out of Texas and into surrounding states were working hard and they didn’t have time or energy to whip up a tasty meal at the end of a long day.
When the 1870s rolled around, it had become harder and harder to find quality cowboys to handle this challenging work. The companies who were battling over the limited supply of reliable cowboys had to do everything they could think of to carve out an edge on the competition, including offering unique perks. Toward that end, Colonel Charles Goodnight developed the idea of the chuckwagon to improve food for cowboys out on the trail.
One of the main demands for a chuckwagon was that it needed to be sturdy. After all, these were rough trails which were being followed by the cowboys, and the trips were frequently more than 1,000 miles in length. To make sure the wagons were up to the job, Colonel Goodnight purchase munitions wagons from war surplus. They were customized to meet the needs of a cook on the trail, and put into action. In addition to the food, chuckwagons frequently hauled other important items, such as shovels, axes, rope, and more.
The challenge of feeding a group of cowboys on a long voyage across dry terrain was a significant one to say the least. It was common to have a crew of approximately 12 workers on a cattle drive, and those 12 men would be responsible for managing an incredible 2,000 to 3,000 head of cattle. Of course, at the end of each day, the men would be both exhausted and quite hungry. Therefore, the job of the cook on the chuckwagon was perhaps the most important in the whole operation. Not only did the cook have to feed the workers, he needed to maintain their morale so they would be able to see the job through all the way to the end.
Despite the considerable effort invested in the development of the chuckwagon, the supplies for creating meals remained relatively modest. Among the common items found on a wagon would include a large supply of beans, onions, flour, salt, potatoes, dried fruit, lard, and more. From these basic ingredients, the cook would have to prepare a menu which was sufficient to keep the cowboys moving mile after mile, day after day. Of course, there was always beef close at hand, so steak and other cuts were often on the menu as well.
Cattle were driven by hand for only a short period in history, as the development of the train system throughout the United States made it unnecessary to use this method any longer. However, for the duration of the famous cattle drives in and around Texas, the chuckwagon played an important role in the ability of the cowboys to reach their destination with the cattle ready for market.