A chuckwagon was any grain wagon with the back grain boards pulled out and replaced with a chuckbox. The box was stocked with salt, flour coffee,
beans and cured meat (most of the time salt pork). The wagon was equipped with a grumpy ole hash slinger, or wagon “Cookie” who was able to drive a wagon, cook the most harsh conditions and even be somewhat of a doctor too.
This ole camp cook kept the bellies of working cowboys full who were in the saddle 14 or 15 hours a day. The cook was second in command, behind the boss man. And a good cook always got twice the pay of cowboys. His coffee was always hot and he never ate until the last man was fed. He mended broken limbs, stitched up wounds and pulled teeth when the occasion arose.
He was made out to be a grumpy old feller with a short disposition and guarded his camp like it was Scotland Yard. There was a set of rules that applied to a camp cook and his surroundings: 1. You don’t eat till the cook calls “chuck” (slang for food), 2. You don’t ride into camp- especially if you were going to dust the cook or his surroundings, 3. You don’t spit under the fly or smoke there unless you had been given permission, 4. Tie a white dish cloth on the corner of the fly when women and children are present so there is no cussin’.
Just like ole Cookie, I too have cooked in some of the most harsh conditions, from hailstorms to heatwaves, and dust stroms to blizzards. But you have to keep the wood dry and the coffee hot… no matter what.
Things haven’t changed a whole lot since then except the food has gotten better and the length of the stay has been shortened due to modernization of the ranching industry. I still have the same rules and most of the time all the old hands abide by them. I have stitched up a feller or two, not with horse hair like ole cookie might have used but with modern catgut thread. I never did get the opportunity to pull any teeth although I think ole Mikee, might have needed it.
I did patch a broken tooth once for a feller who got a back foot in the grinners and chipped the top of the tooth off. Now I ain’t no dentist and never have been a doctor, but with some southern engenering and some JB Weld I got the job done. I filled the tooth and broke some sticks off to put in his mouth so he wouldn’t glue his mouth closed. That feller even called me back some three weeks later and said the dentist told him that was a pretty goood trick.
But no matter the weather or circumstances, my duties and obligations still remain the same; feed cowboys.
I have had the pleasure of cooking on some outfits for years and them fellers have become family. I take great pride in the food I dish out and those fellers will tell you I don’t cut no corners when it comes time to eat.
I feel very fortunate to have met the cowboys I have fed over the last twenty years, and the historic places that I have set up camp. While there may be a lot of differences in the world today it is nice to know that somethings haven’t changed all that much. A day’s work for a day’s wage and good friends to boot, what a bargain!