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Chuck wagon cook-off a taste of history

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Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2012 12:00 pm

By Rebecca Rose

Killeen Daily Herald

LAMPASAS - Annette Wilson woke up early on a Saturday morning and began baking bread.

For six hours, she toiled by a hot stove, carefully baby-sitting the dough over an open fire.

"You appreciate it more when you do it like this," said the retired political worker when ribbed about how easy it would be to get a loaf of bread at the supermarket.

She was one in a crowd of more than a dozen chuck wagon enthusiasts who gathered in a small park in downtown Lampasas April 7 for the third annual Chuck Wagon Cook-off. The event, featuring live music and an assortment of cowboy-related activities, drew more than a hundred local residents.

Living history

For casual observers of Western history, the chuck wagon is just one small part of the fading mystique of cowboy folklore; but for others, it's a hobby for which they spare no expense.

The American Chuck Wagon Association, which has members in 31 states, hosts more than three dozen events each year, attended by thousands of chuck wagon enthusiasts, collectively.

Decked out in authentic 1860s attire and rummaging through their chuck wagon for an unused pot, Annette Wilson and her husband, Wilbur, look like they've stepped from the frame of a Matthew Brady photograph.

The pair from Stamford pride themselves on rigid attention to detail, garnered from almost 20 years of perfecting chuck-wagon cooking.

For the couple, it's not just another rustic looking Dutch oven - it's an 1890s pot that once could have served real cowhands along the trail from Texas to New Mexico.

"It's just the amazement that people lived like this," said Wilbur Wilson, a retired utility worker. "They had so many unique ideas. Every day was survival for them."

On his wagon, Wilbor Wilson cooks stews, fajitas and roasts. He uses beef tips and shoulder clods, some of the cheapest cuts of meat, to simulate the type of food chuck wagon cooks would have had access to.

"They didn't use any cheese or fruit, except for dried fruit," he said. "They relied on things that wouldn't spoil."

Authentic re-creations

Today, antique tins and coffee pots rescued from eBay traders make for secure hiding places for cellphones and business cards with emails and websites. Glenn Moreland operates Texas Cowboys and Outfitters, an online resource for all things cowboy, including chuck wagons. He teaches classes on the history of the Texas cowboy, and the origins of the chuck wagon to patrons of local dude ranches and amateur historians keen to learn more about life on the open trail.

The trail days were born at the end of the Civil War, when the expansion of land west created a surge in demand for beef, much of which existed in Texas. Early cattle barons sought to move massive herds of cattle across lands where no railroad line existed. Crews of hired cowhands had to live on the trail, alongside the herds, for months at a time. Most traveled with little more than what they could wrap in their bedrolls.

The need to feed and care for these mostly young men resulted in the development of the chuck wagon, first invented by Charles Goodnight, said Moreland. In 1866, Goodnight introduced a modified wagon, which included a "chuck box," with numerous drawers and shelves, attached to the back. A lid dropped down to reveal a smooth cooking surface.

Cowboys relied on the chuck wagons to supply everything they needed, which included much more than meals, said Moreland.

"It functioned as their social center. The old cook gave them meals, repaired their clothing, cut their hair, doctored them, helped shoe their horses, and kept money for them as their banker," he said. "It was their home, basically."

Versatility

Annette Wilson demonstrated the versatility of the cook's role first hand.

"This doubled as a (medic's station)," she said, lowering the heavy iron flap.

The surface would be cleaned, and repurposed for a variety of minor medical procedures, such as treatments for scrapes, burns and more.

"The cook was usually around 30, but he was old to the rest of them on the trail," said Moreland. "Cowboys were usually between 16-25. The cook was the one who couldn't ride or rope like he used to, so he became the cook."

To recreate the life of an authentic chuck wagon cook isn't cheap; Moreland's wagons start in the low $10,000s. Accessories, such as original coffee grinders and bread pans can fetch up to $150 from fervent collectors. That's not counting trailers needed to hitch wagons up to trucks, or the cost of accessories like costumes and decorations.

More than a hobby

But for those whose hobby crosses into lifestyle, it's a cost worth bearing. Roscoe resident Johnny Bowen built his wagon up over more than 15 years, collecting items and restoring cooking accessories as needed.

"It's about our ranching history," said Bowen. "For me, it's about the nostalgia of that life that's almost gone now."

The chuck wagons haven't faded entirely from the modern ranching landscape, said Moreland.

After the 1890s, small trail drives still moved herds to railheads that cropped up in Texas, and continued on into the 1950s, he said. Still a necessity in ranches dotted throughout West Texas today, chuck wagons have evolved into smaller chuck boxes, to accommodate the modern cowboy on the open land.

Andy Wilkinson, grandnephew of Goodnight, grew up listening to his mother and grandmother's stories about life at Goodnight's farm. Wilkinson, a poet and songwriter now living in Lubbock, wrote and co-produced an album inspired by those stories.

He isn't surprised that people still crowd under hot tents, in the name of recreating his famous ancestor's invention - what he says is just one more sign of the enduring affinity for the cowboy lifestyle.

"I think the thing that is true about Texas, especially in places like Killeen and Lubbock, more so than in Dallas or Houston, is that we're still in many ways a frontier," he said. "The great thing about the frontier is ultimately you're valuable for what you can do, not where you came from, or what you are. That's why it endures, to this day."

Contact Rebecca Rose at rebeccar@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHBusinessNews.

Check out the competition

For more information on upcoming chuck wagon competitions, go to www.americanchuckwagon.org.

Texas Cowboys and Outfitters is online at www.texcowboy.org.

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