“Come and git it!”
That’s what is announced near the chuck wagon in the summer at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. There are two separate chuck wagons to visit, both giving a unique experience. Outside, before you enter the Center, you can observe and learn from a working chuck wagon. Early in the morning, the “cookie” or “coosie,” (an approved name for the cook) gets his fire and coals ready to cook fresh cowboy beans, cowboy coffee, and the cowboy’s favorite—sour dough biscuits. By noon, the food is ready for sampling and cookie is anxious to serve samples and relay information about this time in history.
Then, upon entering the Center you can go and see an authentic chuck wagon on display that was used on the Wolcott Ranch in Montana until the mid-1960s. All the harnesses, tack, tools, bed rolls, poles, coffee pot, and items in the chuck box were being used by the cowboys on that ranch during the weeks spent on a round up. Looking it over gives you the feeling of all the hard work and lack of comfort of living on the range, either on a cattle drive of perhaps a 1,000 miles, or on a round up on a large ranch.
If you look closely into the chuck box you’ll see there is a bag of Arbuckles coffee! That was the official coffee brand of the chuck wagons traveling on the cattle drives. Cookie loved Arbuckles because that was the first company (from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) that came up with the way to roast the green beans and seal them with their special formula. The coffee beans could then be shipped, fresh and already roasted. Prior to Arbuckles, cookie roasted the green beans first over the open campfire before he ground them to make the strong coffee that cowboys loved. That was a real a convenience!! I can just smell that coffee brewing and taste that bitter, strong brew!
Have you ever wondered why this wagon was called a chuck wagon? Credit is given to Col. Charles Goodnight, who was a Texas cattleman who planned the first long cattle drive from Texas north to the railheads. Keep in mind his nickname was Chuck. Oh, now you get it, right?! When cookie called the men to eat he yelled “Come to Chuck’s wagon,” or if someone needed some item the cook would tell the cowboy to find it in “Chuck’s box.” So chuck wagon and chuck box developed and the word “chuck” became synonymous with the word for food. We use it today when we buy ground chuck at the grocery store.
That chuck box idea was Col. Goodnight’s great insight. He knew the cook needed a place to work and have things handy. So he built a box that closed for traveling and had hinges on the bottom, so when it was open the cook had a work bench. When I camped as a child, my parents built a hinged box to store our food and utensils. Little did I know that idea originated with Charles Goodnight.
So those of you who love cowboys and their unique place in our history will certainly find this a unique experience when you come to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, especially in the summer.