North Dakota History,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

“Come and Get It”

There she stands welcoming all who enter the ranching exhibit at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.  She’s all done up like she would have been back in her heyday when she was perhaps the most important entity in a cowboy’s life on the trail. The horse was a cowboy’s first love, but to start and end the day what could be more important than the chuck wagon!

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Studebaker Chuck wagon display at the NDCHF

As the National Day of the Cowboy approaches here at the NDCHF and across the US, perhaps no other image reflects the life of a cowboy more than the chuck wagon – a cowboy’s home away from home. This is where he went for a meal, for fellowship and whatever else he might need on those long months of a trail drive.

museum article pic

Here at the Hall of Fame it is a Studebaker wagon, yes that Studebaker. The iconic automobiles of the 1950’s were built by the same company that began a hundred years earlier by building horse drawn wagons.  The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was established in 1852 and supplied wagons for a population that was “on the move”; the 1850’s was a time of great westward expansion. One of the most significant events that helped launch the Studebaker Brothers wagon building business was the California Gold Rush.  Henry and Clement Studebaker realized that there was a lot of money to be made supplying the needs of the prospectors. They built their first covered wagon in 1857.  The Studebakers quickly became known for building quality wagons that were durable and dependable.  By the time the Civil War was brewing they were the country’s leading horse drawn wagon manufacturer.  Studebaker began supplying the Union with wagons in 1858 and when the Civil War broke out they were called upon to supply the Union Army.

Goodnight hired the best cook he could find and purchased an old Studebaker military ambulance wagon. With the help of the cook he began to build his prototype.  He outfitted the old wagon with steel axles to withstand the hard terrain and added boxes, shelves and drawers for the cook.  He attached to the back of the wagon a hinged box, which became known as the “chuck” box,  with a sloping lid that could lay down to provide a flat working surface.  Beneath the chuck box was a “boot’ to hold larger items.  A water barrel and coffee mill was attached to the outside of the wagon and canvas or cowhide was suspended underneath to hold wood. Water proof tarps covered the wagon.  Thus the chuck wagon was born.  The chuck wagon would also be supplied with a wide range of other items needed for the journey such as farrier and blacksmith tools, medical supplies, bedrolls, rain slickers and some of the cowboy’s personal gear.  The chuck wagon was managed by the cook, often called “Cookie”, who was arguably the most important man on the drive and second in charge to the trail boss.  Not only was he responsible for the meals which was no small matter, he often served as barber, banker, letter writer, doctor and referee.

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Cowboys camping in the Badlands (SHSND A0686
Charles Goodnight

Goodnight’s invention was so successful that by 1880 Studebaker had created a model called the “Round-Up” wagon and other companies followed suit. Many have felt the term “chuck wagon” was an honorary term to give credit to Charles (“Chuck”) Goodnight for his invention. However, it’s more likely it is from the word chuck itself, which was a slang term for food.

Western North Dakota was ideal for ranching  and cattle were driven north along the Great Western Trail to the valley of the Little Missouri River and the Badlands where there was  grass for grazing, streams for water and and canyons and coulees for shelter.  The cattle were first brought north to supply the military forts and then millions of cattle were fattened up in western North Dakota before going to market.  Perhaps the chuck wagon we see at the Hall’s ranching exhibit made her way up that trail across those prairies and through the badlands. Now she stands here giving us a glimpse into the life of a cowboy, reminding us of those almost forgotten trails that once teemed with men and animals. Close your eyes and try to imagine the wind blowing across the seas of grass, cowboys prodding their cattle along and this chuck wagon with Cookie setting up camp, coffee brewing, and a meal simmering to welcome all at the end of a long day.  Can you hear Cookie yelling “come and get it!”

This year the National Day of the Cowboy, (NDOC), is Saturday July 28, 2018. NDCHF is a supporter of the effort to get a bill passed in North Dakota to officially and permanently recognize the fourth Saturday in July each year as the National Day of the Cowboy helping to preserve America’s cowboy culture and pioneer heritage. Join us in Medora on July 28 as the NDCHF celebrates the National Day of the Cowboy.

More about the Chuck wagon

From: Chronicles of the Old

CM russell chuckwagon
Laugh Kills Lonesome by Charles M. Russell (Montana Historical Society Museum Collection)

Cowboys tended to develop much of their own colorful and unique vocabulary. Sometimes a word came about because they couldn’t pronounce the word it came from correctly and sometimes because an item would remind them of something else.

Examples include:

  • Calf Slobbers – Meringue on a pie
  • Spotted Pup – cooking raisins in rice
  • Stacked to fill – compliment to the chief following a great meal
  • “Man at the pot” – yelled at a person pouring himself a cup of coffee. A way of saying “pour me a cup too”.
  • Charlie Taylor – A substitute for butter, a combination of molasses and bacon grease.
  • Chuck wagon chicken – fried bacon

Recipe for SPOTTED PUP

Take whatever amount needed for hungry cowboys of fluffy cooked rice. Put in Dutch oven and cover with milk and well beaten eggs. Add a dash of salt. Sweeten well with sugar. Add raisins and a little nutmeg and vanilla. Bake in slow oven until egg mixture is done and raisins are soft.


In honor of the cowboys who loved their coffee.

Cut slits in a 3-5 pound brisket. Insert garlic and onion into the slits. Pour one cup of vinegar over the meat and work into the slits. Marinate in the refrigerator for 24 – 48 hours.  Place in the Dutch oven, Pour two cups of strong coffee and two cups water over the meat. Simmer 4- 6 hours. If necessary add water during the cooking.


Legends of America: The Chuck Wagon – The Real Queen of the Cattle Trail

Trips Into History/Historic Sites: Studebaker’s Frontier Wagons

American Chuck wagon Cooking: Chuck Wagon History and Cooking

Farm Collector: A History of the Studebaker Company

The Great Dakota Boom, Section 4: Ranches and Cattle Bonanzas,

Chronicles of the Old West,  The Chuck wagon

Originally published in the Cowboy Chronicle, publication of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame,  May 2018


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