The Chuck Wagon Cook assumes the role as mom

We just celebrated Mother’s Day and I hope all Mothers received the proper attention and respect that they are due. 

As I thought about this, I thought about an era when young cowboys, mostly teenagers, some as young as 10 years old, went up the Chisholm Trail pushing a herd of Longhorns to the railhead in Kansas. 

There was not a “Mom” on the trail with them, so they must use a surrogate Mom, the Chuck wagon cook. In today’s poem, you will see the similarities. You see, the chuck wagon cook assumed the same role of “the Mom.” 

He was comforter, teacher and counselor, healer, provider, doctor, veterinarian, barber, dentist, banker, settler of disputes, lawyer, and preacher, He was in charge of his domain, picking campsites as well as keeping the cowboys well fed. One of his more important rolls was to keep the coffee plentiful and hot. No, he did not get mushy like Moms sometimes do. And though his roll was important, he could never take the place of MOM. 

But nonetheless, he played an important roll in our nations history as Texas beef was supplied to the mid-western meat packing plants and eventually to meet food demands back east. The only man higher in rank on a cattle drive was the trail boss. Yet, there was no one more respected than the cook, usually called, “Cookie.” 

Cowboys were careful not to rile him, because cooks were always surly and bad tempered. They controlled their domain with an iron hand. There was a certain etiquette to be observed in the cow camp and woe to the cowboy that breached that etiquette. In truth, they were family and as such they were fiercely loyal. 

They might have a few expressive names for the cook, like “pot wrassler, bean wrangler, or even belly cheater,” though never said to him face to face, because when he was present, he was “Cookie!” When chuck was ready, he would call out so they could wash up, grab their utensils and line up to get their share. Sometimes it would be bacon and beans, or steak with sour dough biscuits, and maybe “canned termaters.”  

On rare occasions, there might be dried apple pie made in a Dutch oven. The chuck wagon cooks duties were many, in addition to ones we have listed, he picked and set up camp and then broke camp just to start the process over, built the fires, was nursemaid and vet to cowboys and critters, and when he was finished with his work and ready to hit the sack, he would always place the wagon tongue pointing north, so the trail boss would know what direction to start the herd next day.


The Chuck Wagon Cook

A cowboys’s job gets done better when he’s fed,

Or so ol’ Coozie would allow,

An idea began to stir in his head,

An’ a plan wrinkled his brow.


The vision of Charlie Goodnight brought this to a plan,

He’d give this idea a good look,

An’ it would all hinge on the grit of one man,

None other than the chuck wagon cook!


It started as a method to meet a rancher’s needs, 

Just a box with four spoked wheels,

A hinged tongue that swung to and fro to hook the harness leads,

A rawhide brake that squeals.


The bed was built from some seasoned bois d’arc planks,

An’ a seat with two bow springs,

An’ those that rode it was mighty sparing with their thanks,

Bumps made you wish you had wings.


In the rear, you slapped up some shelves an’ slidin’ drawers,

To carry stuff like pots an’ pans,

Along with cookin’ supplies, snake bite meds an’ some cigars,

Maybe, termaters in cans.


An’ coffee, lots of it, boiled black an’ strong,

Essential to a cowboy’s needs,

Maybe so just add a little sugar along,

Count it as one of your good deeds.


A cook does doctorin’ an’ bankin’ an’ such,

When the fellers have a need,

Sundays, you read from the Book, help ‘em stay in touch,

Sometimes, fights you refereed. 


You wore a lotta hats, in your domain,

You take good care of the crew,

An’ you’ll do your work an’ you don’t complain,

Do what’s expected of you.


This job demands that you do as best you could,

Maybe you could use that young sprout,

A young feller could haul in lotsa firewood,

Help put all the bedrolls out.


You could soak the beans, slice off some steaks you fixed,

For when the cowboys come in,

While a fresh batch of sourdough biscuits you mixed,

A real favorite of these men.


The long day ends with a stretch an’ a yawn,

As cowboys sleep the sleep of the pure,

The coffee will be hot, before the dawn,

A new day breaks with fresh allure.


That’s how it is, mile upon mile, day after day,

The chuck wagon cook is key,

Holdin’ to the cowboy code as they make their way,

To carry out their destiny.

© Ol’ Jim Cathey


God bless each of you and God Bless America!










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