Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Charles Goodnight and his Famous Invention: The Chuckwagon

I want to tell you the story of Charles Goodnight, a man who epitomized the Wild American West in every aspect of his life, but like all good stories, it is best to begin in medias res--in the middle of things. And so, I will begin with an explanation of his most famous invention: the chuckwagon.

Charles Goodnight, circa 1880. Photo by Billy Hathor/Public Domain.

Charles Goodnight decided he was going to be a cowboy when he was nine years old. He rode the family's horse from Illinois to Texas following dutifully behind his family's wagon so he could learn what cowboys need to know about horses. That's determination. That's the type of boy he was, and the man he grew to be--determined. He was determined to build a cattle kingdom, and he succeeded. He lost his kingdom, and built another, refusing to give up even when the odds were stacked against him. When there was work to be done, Charles Goodnight was ready to complete the task. It's not surprising that Charles Goodnight was the man who recognized the one thing necessary to the survival of men moving herds on the cattle trails, and not surprising that he would be the man to invent it. In fact, to this day, it still uses the name of Charles Goodnight--the "chuck"wagon.

Charles Goodnight was a cattle rancher, a Texas Ranger, and eventually one of the most successful cattle kings in Texas. Goodnight made a few cattle drives to Kansas after the American Civil War came to a close, but the market was quickly glutted with cattle after the war and Goodnight wanted to try something different to increase his profits. In 1866 he approached his longtime friend, Oliver Loving, and proposed a 2,000 mile drive, which eventually became the Goodnight-Loving Trail extending from the Texas Panhandle, through eastern Colorado and into southern Wyoming. However, when preparing for this adventure Goodnight realized the men would need food and water and someone to prepare the meals, so Goodnight sat at his desk and began to sketch out a plan.

Two-Bar chuckwagon camped at Dry Fork of Elkhead Creek during spring of 1907. 
Photo by J.H. Sizer.

Goodnight had a bit of experience with wagons during his travels with his family and his time with the Texas Rangers. He knew what was necessary for a cowboy to complete a long trip walking alongside a herd of cattle. He made a list of what would be necessary for the trip, then designed alterations to the sturdiest wagon he had worked with in his career so it could carry these supplies. The wagon was a Studebaker, a favorite of the US military at that time due to its sturdy iron axles.

His next task was to figure out how to redesign the wagon so it could carry enough supplies for at least ten men on a drive that might last as long as five months. The bed of the wagon could remain relatively the same. It was used to store the bed rolls, the weapons of the cowboys on the trail and ammunition, lanterns, kerosene, axle grease, rain slickers, corral rope, an extra wagon wheel and a hefty supply of salt pork. Bulk food items were also stored in the wagon bed, including green coffee beans (I'm not sure why they were green, but I'm intrigued now and intend to find out), pinto beans, sugar, salt, dried apples, onions, potatoes, and grain.

Next, Goodnight added a water barrel to the side of the wagon, a barrel large enough to carry a two day supply of water. On the opposite side (to even the weight) he added a heavy tool box for wagon repairs. Then he covered the wagon with bentwood bows and stretched canvas across the top to protect the supplies from the rain.

Now comes the fun part. At the rear of the wagon, Goodnight added the invention that made him most famous--the "chuck" box. This was a hinged box that has been compared to a Victorian desk with numerous tiny drawers and cubbyholes and a lid that unfolded to form a working table space for the cook, complete with a swinging leg.

In the chuck box, the cookie stored utensils and food needed to prepare the day's meals, which generally included flour, sugar, dried fruit, coffee, beans, plates, cups, and cutlery. He also kept items that might be needed for emergencies, such as castor oil, calomel (a white powder used as a fungicide), bandages, needle and thread, and a razor and strop, which was used to sharpen the razor. Other drawers and cubbyholes might hold salt, lard, baking soda, vinegar, and the chewing tobacco and rolling tobacco, matches, and molasses. Larger cubbyholes held the skillets, dutch ovens, pot hooks to hold the pots over the fire, and the very important coffee pot. There was also whiskey on board for serious injuries, which the cook guarded very carefully, and often took a sip or two to make sure it was still good.

Word of the chuckwagon's usefulness spread quickly and soon there were chuckwagon manufacturers across the country. Although some Western films show the Conestoga Wagon used as a chuckwagon, in truth, they were too bulky for use on cattle trails and manufacturers tended to stick with what worked--the military wagon. In fact, Studebaker, the manufacturer of Goodnight's original wagon, soon had a line of chuckwagons ready-made for the trail, along with other companies such as Springfield Wagon, Old Hickory Wagon, the Mitchell Wagon Company and Moline Wagon.

The popularity of the chuckwagon did not disappear with the Old West. There are still quite a few chuckwagon companies, from New Mexico to Montana, that serve authentic cattle drive food and provide musical entertainment, as well. In fact, my family had an authentic chuckwagon dinner when I was a child.

Canadians are particularly fond of chuckwagons. Canada is home to the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, which sponsors chuckwagon races--a very competitive and somewhat dangerous sport--their website is called Half Mile of Hell! The races were introduced in 1923 by Guy Weadick, the founder of the Calgary Stampede, in an attempt to preserve the history of the American West. In addition to the races, participants compete in cook offs, are judged on the authenticity of their wagon construction and setup, the cookie's wardrobe, the food that is served, and even their hospitality.

It would be interesting to know what Charles Goodnight would say if he was told that his invention was still used to this day. I think he would be proud.


Shane Joseph said...

Good stuff! I read where chile was a main staple for drives, and a keeping a smidgin' of starter dough was important to the cook. I don't know if true or not.
One question...not on this subject...Have you done an article on the camels (I think feral camels) that were brought in at Camp Verde? My brother and I have a little wager about this subject? Thanks, Joe

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Hello Joseph! There was actually a type of stew that resembled chili that was used for the main meals for drives: Son of a Gun Stew. I wrote about it in a few earlier posts. I have no doubt that many cooks spiced it up with chilies, particularly since the cattle drives were coming up from the South.

I have not written an article about the camels, but camels were, indeed, used by the military on an experimental basis. They proved to be less reliable than horses. They handled the heat better than horses in Texas, but they are stubborn animals and it seems some of the soldiers grew tired of being spit on by the camels! When I finish this segment about cattle drives (I have a few more on Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and cattle drives) I would like to talk about the military and will discuss the camels then. Thank you so much for reading my post!

Rob Lopez said...

"...whiskey on board for serious injuries, which the cook guarded very carefully, and often took a sip or two to make sure it was still good."

Hahahaha. A 'medicinal' sip no doubt. Another interesting article.

Considering that others took to manufacturing chuck wagons, did Goodnight patent the 'chuck box'?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, medicinal, of course!

Rob, I don't know if he patented that invention, but what a good question! I have a feeling he had no idea it would become such a popular and important piece of cattle drive equipment. I do know that he could not read or write and his wife took care of his legal matters, as well as all correspondence. It would be interesting to find out if she filed a patent.

Unknown said...

The coffee beans were green because chuck wagons and cattle drives pre-dated the mass production of commercial coffee. If the coffee were roasted before the drive it would oxidize and go bad over the course of the trip. Traveling with green coffee beans meant that the beans could be roasted right before use. Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee was the first brand to find a way to keep pre-roasted coffee beans fresh, which was why it became a favorite of cowboys and chuckwagon cooks alike. There's a short history of the subject on my blog:

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you for answering my question! That's a great article. Very unique!

schnell abnehmen said...

very good post

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you!

Jesse said...

Good article, and I spread the word. Studebaker wagons have been something I've posted about in the past, but til now I hadn't heard about the chuckwagon connection. Have you heard of, or wanted to post about the "Old Spanish Trail" from Florida to San Diego?

Unknown said...

Nice artical

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...