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The chuck wagon was the heart of the round-up and trail drive.  Cooks were often older men or former cowboys.  Cattlemen paid them well. They knew good food was critical to a happy and hardworking crew.

The chuck box loaded in the back of the wagon was a honeycomb of drawers and shelves.  The larger back partition held sourdough starter, a flour sack and larger utensils.  Smaller spaces contained tin plates, 'eatin' irons, [utensils] and a 3 to 5 gallon coffee pot.  If the weather was cold, the cook often kept the sourdough starter against his body, as it required constant warmth.  Heavy pots and pans were stored in a hinged box below the chuck box.  A water barrel was mounted on the wagon side.  It was cooled by wrapping in wet canvas or gunny sack.  A jockey box beneath the footboard held emergency equipment such as hobbles or horseshoeing tools.  The wagon bed held other staples and bedrolls. In a large outfit, there was often a separate wagon for bedrolls.

A Dutch oven, a cast iron pot with legs and a rimmed lid was essential.  It was placed over hot coals.  More coals were then piled on the lid.  Equally important was the large coffee pot and a couple of kettles.  At the campfire, fire hooks dangled from the crossbar over the heat for the pots to hang on.  The 'gouch' hook lifted hot and heavy lids.  There was a dish pan for mixing bread, a kettle for heating water for washing, a 'wreck' or 'roundup' pan for dirty dishes, and a 'squirrel can' for scraps.

Sourdough was a staple and cooks guarded their dough keg.  A typical day's food on the trail was meat, hot bread, dried fruit and coffee for breakfast.  The noon and dinner meal included roast beef, boiled potatoes, beans, brown gravy, light bread or biscuits, and coffee.

Dessert included stewed dried fruit, spiced cake made without eggs or butter, dried fruit pies, or spotted pup [rice and raisins].  Northern cowboys were more likely to get beef with their meals.  Some outfits in the Southwest made do with salt pork, beans and sourdough.

National Park Service



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