The chuck wagon brings to mind the romantic image of the American West. The image of cowboys trailing cattle across the open prairies to markets in the North and East. Just how did this image evolve?
At the end of the U.S. civil war in the 1860's, a massive expansion of settlement moved westward across the North American continent. This expansion created a large market for beef. Beef that existed, on the hoof, in the southwest, primarily in Texas. Enterprising cattlemen recognized the need to move herds of cattle to market without railroads. This meant driving herds overland. The trail drive days were born. To move a herd of cattle overland meant crews of cowhands had to live in the open for months at a time. The need to feed and care for these mostly young men resulted in the development of the chuck wagon.
The chuck wagon was the cowboys' home - for most, the only home they had. When a cowboy threw his bedroll on top of the chuck wagon, rolled inside was everything he owned except the clothes he wore and the saddle he sat on. The chuck wagon and cook had to supply everything else the cowboy needed. Meals, repairs to clothing and equipment, entertainment, medical help and moral support all came from the cowboys' rolling home. The relationship between the cowboy and the chuck wagon was one the likes of which had never existed before. To the cowhand, the chuck wagon was much more than just a mobile kitchen. Chuck wagon cooks were notoriously cantankerous and surly. The result was much bickering and name calling between cook and cowboy. No outsider would dare to take such liberties with either. Trail crews were a family and they were loyal.
The chuck wagon is a symbol of the rugged individualism and can-do spirit of the American frontier. The spirit that enabled cattlemen to master incredible hardships while moving their herds over a vast wilderness. It is the same spirit which had led to the creation of a new nation. A nation which embraced individual rights and freedoms. A nation that led the world in two wars against tyranny and still leads that fight today. A nation that landed men on the moon and returned them safely to the earth. Not once, but six times. A nation that made capitalism a world wide way of life. This frontier spirit has shown the world the rights of individuals cannot be suppressed. That all men are indeed created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.
When I look at a chuck wagon, I see much more than just a mobile kitchen.
- By Bill Thompson