Cowboys back in the day probably never came right out and said it, and maybe they never even consciously thought of it this way, but the Chuck Wagon was 'social-central' on a trail drive. This reality reminds me of a Swedish plaque that my mother kept on her refrigerator:
"No matter where I serve my guests,
it seems they like my kitchen best".
So, again, it seems to me that people have not changed much over time. Even on a cattle drive out on the wild prairie, the kitchen was the gathering place. It was not only where meals were served and consumed but where poems and stories were told, ballads sung and strategies and plans for the drive were discussed. The cook was most important. Often, the first question asked when a cowboy was hiring on for a drive or as a ranch hand was, "Who's the cook?". This is no surprise to me. Drives were often three months long, maybe more. The work was dangerous and physically exhausting. It was very harsh by the comfortable existence most of us enjoy today. There was no entertainment, recreation or relief beyond what the drovers would provide for themselves. So they gathered together around the chuck wagon and the campfire, doing what people do; sharing in fellowship to bury their secrets and lonesome.
Chuck Wagon Home
"Tell us one of your stories Dusty", Joe begged
“ 'Way It's stormin' we'll be here a week
C'mon Dusty, help us pass some time
Sure hopin' this canvas lean-to don't leak"
Well I thought about it a minute
Seems I'd told all my stories before
What could I tell that would be new
I sure didn't wann'a be a bore
About then I remembered my father
Tellin' stories of his grandad
Who had become a trail-drive cook
Though never his own chuckwagon he'd had
My great grandpa'd done a lot of cookin'
For railroad or logging camps and such
But he really wanted to make a trail drive
Figgerin' he was up to doin' as much
Findin' an outfit havin' the chuck wagon already
He saw this as his special chance
He'd only have to show up and cook
Without havin' his own wagon in advance
He'd known a few other trail drive cooks
Who'd jockeyed a chuck wagon or two
They'd given him lots of advice
On how to make camp cookin' do
"You gotta' set up your wagon", they told
"So you have the right stuff all handy
And put your rules out from the get-go
Keep a firm hand so all will go dandy"
"Nobody touches your wagon", they said
"Or any of the contents therein
If a cowboy wants somethin'
He must ask, or risk a cleaver run-in"
"You'll have a water barrel on one side
And sometimes that'll get rationed
Whatever's on your chuck wagon
Guard it unfailingly with a passion!"
There were other notions he learned
As he worked those long trail drives
One that he found quite amusing
Was that he sorta' controlled the lives
Most folks figured the trail boss
Was the hombre who called the shots
But in truth it was also camp cooky seein'
All depended on what went into his pots
The chuck wagon was a specialized vehicle
It was more than a kitchen on wheels
It carried bedrolls, tack and tools
In addition to bein' of use in makin' meals
When I consider all theirvarious chores
I wonder if a Cooky wasn't constant smelly
After gatherin' cow-chips all day
And tossin' 'em into the possum belly
He was not only the pot wrangler
But also the navigator in the moonlight
His job was pointin' his wagon tongue
Towards the north star every night
Then the trail boss of a mornin'
Knew which direction to point the herd
This was a standard cow-camp tradition
In most camps without a spoken word
Dad told me my great-grandfather
Only for the four-sixes cooked
Once they gave him his own chuck wagon
Bein’ so loyal, well, he was hooked
The mules he drove it with were his own
He was mighty partial to them I'm told
"Nobody but me hitches my mules", he said
A rule he would hard-line uphold
He loved that his own kitchen was
The place where his boys would gather
He enjoyed their idle talk as he cooked
A comfortin' buzz as they would blather"
One hand might grab his ol' guitar
And moan out a lonesome song
Another would tell a good story
In a rhymin' voice deep and strong
Sometimes there was among the hands
A cowboy with some bible learnin’
If so he’d gather the boys not ridin’ herd
Sunday mornin’s for a quick Jesus sermon
As for his beloved chuck wagon
Once it was truly his own
He got sentimental and named it
Seein' it was no longer on loan
How he come to name it 'Home'
Is a twisty but fittin' end to this tale
They say it was the only he ever had
And where he was happiest without fail
But more meaningful to Cooky it seems
Was that it was also home to the hands
Where they'd gather to laugh, sing and story
Right there amongst the clatter of his pans
by Rik Goodell
© 2022. All rights reserved
No copyright infringement is intended by my use of this Charles M. Russell painting. I am unable to determine a valid source for permission. I've been to the C. M. Russell museum in Great Falls and walked through his warm, functional studio. We have several of his prints hanging in our home. He was a fellow-Montanan and I have only the deepest respect for his acclaimed work.