Steam from rapidly melting snow and smoke from the campfire recently mixed over a field on the west side of Pueblo as crews of seven chuck wagons peeled potatoes, chopped onions and were making their cookie mix.
Evidence of the previous restless night that resulted in a late-season snowstorm remained in a collapsed tent, a broken wagon bow and boot-sucking mud everywhere. But crews had quickly straightened collapsed awnings and prep tables to cook at 5 a.m. and dine on the table at 3 p.m. for more than 300 people.
Cooks who days earlier had worried about a possible ban on wood fires were sinking in the mud on camp stools as they happily stirred pots of beef and beans. The onlookers settled near the fires to warm up.
The weather, it seems, is one of the biggest challenges facing old-fashioned chuck cart crews.
It’s also part of authenticity – they cook regardless of wind, rain, snow, altitude or scorching sun, just like cooks in the late 1800s did when feeding cows. -boys at cattle drives.
This gathering had another historic twist: it was the first Chuck Wagon Rendezvous at the restored Goodnight Barn where Charles Goodnight, credited with inventing the chuck wagon, ran his northern ranch.
“All of us who love chuck wagons have a special regard for Charles Goodnight,” said Monte Deckerd of Golden. “To be able to be here at the barn is very special.”
The event, which organizers promise will be annual, was a fundraiser to build bathrooms and an interpretive center in the Highway 96 barn, west of Pueblo.
The Goodnight Barn
The stone barn completed in 1871 is the only remaining structure of Goodnight’s Rock Canyon Ranch, the northern headquarters of his multistate cattle enterprise. Goodnight purchased the ranch along the Arkansas River in 1868.
He and his business partner Oliver Loving created the Goodnight-Loving Trail to move cattle from Texas and Mexico north to mining country in Colorado and railheads in Wyoming so they could be shipped east. . It was one of the busiest cattle trails in the west.
Goodnight and his wife, Mary Ann Dyer, lived on the ranch for six years, and he invested heavily in Pueblo real estate and civic efforts. But business difficulties, caused in part by the Panic of 1873, forced Goodnight to sell the ranch in 1876 for $52,500 and return to Texas, according to the Texas State Historical Society. The ranch house was destroyed by fire in 1884.
From 1931 to 1973, the ranch property and barn were used for ranching and farming, a stage, a resort with swings and a dancing platform, and eventually the Superior Dairy, according to Goodnight Barn Preservation. , Inc.
In 1973 it was sold to a concrete company, which did not need the barn and it fell into disrepair after the hayloft was removed, weakening the structure.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and Pueblo County and the Colorado State Historical Society paid for a new roof for the barn in 1996, but it remained on private land.
That’s when Texas Tech University made a bid to move the barn to the National Ranching Heritage Museum in Lubbock, Texas.
The Town of Pueblo said: Hold your horses.
In 2002 the barn was placed on Colorado’s most endangered places list and two years later Pueblo purchased the barn and 1.5 acres of land to preserve the site. The barn has been reinforced to keep it intact while funds have been raised to restore it.
The barn would not move to Texas, although a Colonel Charles Goodnight Chuck Wagon Cookoff has been held in Clarendon, Texas for over 25 years.
The million-dollar restoration was completed in 2020, but planned public opening events and the dream of a Chuck Wagon Rendezvous have been put on hold during the pandemic.
Until this year, when organizers were nowhere near letting a spring snowstorm derail it.
It was windy and the temperatures were dropping rapidly when the trailers carrying the core carts arrived May 20 from New Mexico and throughout Colorado for five to six hours of installation.
The dry, hard ground didn’t help – a jackhammer was needed to drive stakes into the ground, said Orie Mathews of Lamar. He got his bright green John Deere cart, nicknamed the Lazy M, about five years ago.
He got his start in barbecue competitions and then jumped onto the chuck wagon circuit, which includes competitions and rallies and lots of dining at Lamar.
He claims a grand champion award for cookies and gravy at a world championship competition in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, and says his beef shanks and chicken fried steak are also very good.
He and other wagon masters have said weather and location are the biggest challenges in baking chuck wagons. In drought conditions they had to use propane grills and in the pouring rain it is difficult to keep the firewood dry.
“It takes a lot longer to cook beans at high altitudes,” Mathews said.
The food is usually the same: beef, beans, cookies, potatoes, and dessert. At the recent event, the beef was donated by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Pueblo County Stockman’s Association and the rest of the ingredients came from local farmers.
That meant they got Pueblo peppers, which they added liberally to potatoes, cookies, gravy and stews, according to the cook.
“Coming from New Mexico, we like to use green chiles,” said Vince Smith, who brought his Solano Wagon from Tucumcari.
“Today we use Pueblo peppers,” he added with a smile.
He’s on his seventh wagon because he continues to trade for his “full-time hobby.”
A love of camp cooking, old wagons, outdoor adventure, and Western traditions are the reasons most get into chuck cart cooking.
Kristie Carriker of Cortez said her husband, Rodney, made carts and buggies and they had always loved Dutch oven cooking. So adding a chuck cart was natural to their Canyon Trails Ranch. They’ve had their Weber & Damme wagon, which was originally an egg transporter, for about 20 years.
“The most important thing is to meet all these people,” she said. “It’s the camaraderie that makes it fun.”
Sometimes that’s how people get addicted.
Dave Wade of Rye said he was at a family reunion in Durango and continued to drive the wagon. Eventually he stopped and spoke to the wagon conductor, who persuaded him to give it a try.
He had his Mountain Trails Chuck Wagon, a John Deere Triumph, for eight years and is now a board member of the American Chuck Wagon Association. He goes to half a dozen rallies and competitions a year. He also does catering and recently cooked for a Pikes Peak Range Riders event.
He shrugs when asked if he has a specialty. “We have a peach cobbler that everyone seems to like.”
Deckerd has owned his cart, Rafter 76, for 15 years and does a lot of catering for hunters and outfitters. He was involved in rafting, hence the Rafter part of the name.
The 76 is because Colorado is the centennial state and, he jokes, “that’s the average IQ for a minecart cook.”
He found his cart circa 1910 in a barn in Iowa and it has the original wood and paint.
A basic wagon costs around $10,000, but add all the equipment, cast iron pots and pans, a trailer to transport it and you have a $100,000 investment, the wagon masters said.
Yet it’s not just about competition.
“I really like cooking with it,” Deckerd said. “When I take family camping, we bring it to cook. It attracts attention.
“I hate to think about the day I have to sell it.”