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.
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.