Steam from rapidly melting snow and campfire smoke mingled above a field on the west side of Pueblo recently as the crews of seven chuck wagons peeled potatoes, chopped onions and prepped their biscuit mix.
Evidence of the previous rough night that brought a late-season snowstorm remained in a collapsed tent, a broken wagon bow and boot- sucking mud everywhere. But the crews had quickly righted collapsed canopies and prep tables to get cooking by 5 a.m. and have dinner on the table by 3 p.m. for more than 300 people.
Cooks who a few days earlier were worried about a potential wood fire ban were sinking in the mud on camp stools as they happily stirred pots of beef and beans. Onlookers cozied up to the fires for warmth.
Weather, it seems, is one of the biggest challenges facing crews of old-fashioned chuck wagons.
It’s also part of the authenticity — they cook regardless of wind, rain, snow, elevation or blazing sun, just as the cooks in the late 1800s did when they were feeding cowboys on cattle drives
This gathering had another historic touch: 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 into 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 at the barn on Highway 96 on the western edge 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 multi-state cattle business. Goodnight purchased the ranch along the Arkansas River in 1868.
He and his business partner Oliver Loving established the Goodnight-Loving Trail to move cattle from Texas and Mexico north to mining country in Colorado and railheads in Wyoming so it could be shipped east. It was one of the most heavily traveled 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 endeavors. 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 stop, 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 didn’t need the barn and it fell into disrepair after the hayloft was removed, weakening the structure.
It was placed 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 City of Pueblo said: Hold your horses.
In 2002 the barn was placed on Colorado’s most endangered places list and two years later Pueblo bought the barn and 1.5 acres of land to preserve the site. The barn was reinforced to keep it intact while funds were 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 more than 25 years.
The $1 million restoration was completed in 2020 but planned public opening events and the dream of a Chuck Wagon Rendezvous were put on hold during the pandemic.
Until this year, when organizers weren’t about to let a spring snowstorm derail it.
The chuck wagons
It was windy and the temperatures were rapidly falling when the trailers hauling the chuck wagons pulled in on May 20 from New Mexico and throughout Colorado for five to six hours of setup.
The dry, rock-hard ground didn’t make things easy — a jackhammer was required to get stakes in the ground, said Orie Mathews of Lamar. He got his bright green John Deere chuck wagon, dubbed the Lazy M, about five years ago.
He got his start in barbecue competitions and then jumped to the chuck wagon circuit, which includes competitions and gatherings and a lot of catering in Lamar.
He lays claim to a grand champion award for biscuits and gravy at a World Championship competition in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, and says his beef tips and chicken fried steak are pretty good, too.
He and other wagon masters said weather and location are the biggest challenges in chuck wagon cooking. In drought conditions they’ve had to use propane grills, and in pouring rain it’s hard to keep the firewood dry.
“It takes beans a lot longer to cook at high altitude,” Mathews said.
The food is generally the same: beef, beans, biscuits, 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 chiles, which they added liberally to potatoes, biscuits, gravy and stews, depending on the cook.
“Coming from New Mexico we like to use green chiles,” said Vince Smith, who brought his Solano Wagon from Tucumcari.
“Today we’re using Pueblo chiles,” he added with a smile.
He is on his seventh wagon because he keeps trading up for his “full-time hobby.”
A love of camp cooking, old wagons, outdoor adventure and western lore are the reasons most get into chuck wagon cooking.
Kristie Carriker of Cortez said her husband, Rodney, makes wagons and buggies and they’ve always loved Dutch oven cooking so the addition of a chuck wagon was a natural at their Canyon Trails Ranch. They’ve had their Weber & Damme wagon, which was originally an egg hauler, for about 20 years.
“The big thing is meeting all these people,” she said. “It’s the camaraderie that makes it fun.”
That’s sometimes how people get hooked.
Dave Wade of Rye said he was at a family reunion in Durango and kept driving by a chuck wagon. Finally, he stopped and talked to the wagon master, who persuaded him to give it a try.
He’s had his Mountain Trails Chuck Wagon, a John Deere Triumph, for eight years and is now on the board of the American Chuck Wagon Association. He goes to a half dozen or so gatherings 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 everybody seems to like.”
Deckerd has had his wagon, Rafter 76, for 15 years and does a lot of catering for hunters and outfitters. He was involved in white water 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 of a chuck wagon cook.”
He found his circa 1910 wagon in a barn in Iowa and it has the original wood and paint.
A basic wagon costs about $10,000, but throw in all the gear, cast iron pots and pans, a trailer to haul it and you’ve got a $100,000 investment, the wagon masters said.
Still, it’s not just about the competition.
“I really enjoy cooking with it,” Deckerd said. “When I take the family camping we bring it along for cooking. It draws some attention.
“I hate to think of the day I have to sell it.”