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Friday, August 15, 2014

Goodnight: Calf Wagons and Chuck Wagons

I’ve heard it said that you learn something new every day ... and today was certainly one of them.  To my surprise, when I was reviewing my research for today’s blog, I discovered something new ... the chuckwagon wasn’t named for its inventor, Colonel Charles Goodnight!

Colonel Goodnight was the first permanent rancher in the Texas Panhandle. Although he wasn’t a native Texan, he got here as quick as he could. At the age of nine, Charlie traveled with his family 800 miles from his home in Illinois to Waco, Texas, riding bareback on a mare called Blaze. As a youth he was a fairly good horse jockey, bull whacker, rail splitter and herded cattle.  He served during the Civil War and was a Scout and Guide with the infamous Texas Rangers. After the war, he devoted his career almost exclusively to cattle.
At the age of thirty, he blazed his first famous cattle trail ... the Goodnight-Loving Trail. He was one of the first cattlemen who recognized that the same head worth $4.00 in the Texas Panhandle was worth ten times that in the markets farther north.  Goodnight also was the first to recognize that calves born on the trail were money at the end of the drive...but only if they survived and gained weight. The early practice was to kill calves because they could not keep up with the herd on their own.  Cattleman Goodnight resolved that issue by contracting to have special wagons made that held 30 to 40 calves.  Any calves born on the trail were picked up by the drovers and put on the “calf wagon” for the day’s drive.  When nightfall came, the calves were turned out with their mothers to nurse.

Goodnight soon discovered he had another problem on his hands. A cow knows her own calf by its smell and The Colonel found that when he put different calves together in the “calf wagon” during the day, their scents mixed. Thus, they were rejected by their mamas and would eventually starve to death. He then ordered his drovers to place each calf in its own separate sack, leaving the calf’s head out and tying the sack around its neck. The sacks were numbered so that the same calf went into the same sack each morning after being with its mother at night. The calves rode safely in the calf wagon during the day and spend the night with their mamas. The calves arrived at market healthy and in good shape. That meant increased profits at the end of the drive. I can only imagine what his cattle drives looked like. 

Cattle typically follow a lead steer and for many of his drives, Goodnight’s lead steer was “Old Blue”. According to legend, this famous steer helped lead a thousand head 250 miles up to Dodge City. That accomplished, Old Blue then turned around and trotted back home with the cowboys.

Known as the “Pulse of the Panhandle,” Goodnight helped organize the Panhandle Stock Association of Texas to fight rustling. In the 1870’s when it became apparent that the hide hunters would eventually exterminate the buffalo, with the encouragement of his wife, he started his own herd of domestic buffalo.  When buffalo products became exceedingly scarce such things as hides, robes, mounted heads and horns became a hot commodity. Buffalo meat was a high-priced luxury.

As time went on, friends began to comment that Goodnight with his mop of shaggy hair over bright dark eyes topped a massive, strong body, which with age, showed a hump rounding his shoulders ... became increasing likened to his beloved buffalo. He attracted international attention with his breed of “cattalo”, a crossbreed with a buffalo bull and Angus heifer. They could handle the high altitude and sever winters of a buffalo and resulted in a meatier animal.  For me personally, a hundred and fifty years later, I’d say they had a buffalo body with the face and horns of a longhorn.

Up to this point, I could have written most of this with very little research. I was born and raised in the Texas Panhandle, so I’ve spent all of my life knowing about Goodnight and his innovative ways of ranching. I’ve visited the town named after him. My novella in the anthology “Give Me a Texas Outlaw” is set in his dugout in Palo Duro Canyon, and I’ve visited his grave many times.  But, the one thing he created that I presumed was named from him ... the chuckwagon, wasn’t!

Prior to the chuckwagon, Cowboys often relied on eating what they carried in their saddle bags such as dried beef, corn fitters or biscuits. It didn’t take Goodnight long to discover that a well-fed cowboy is a happy one. 

Traveling the trail everyday carrying minimal baggage in hot, uncomfortable weather was tough on a cowboy. In 1866, Charles saw his opportunity and began on his new invention – the chuckwagon.  He basically redesigned a Studebaker wagon to fit a cowboy’s needs.  The Studebaker was a tough Army surplus wagon that could last months of hard driving on the trails.  Goodnight designed his very own chuck box, containing a number of shelves and drawers.  He fitted this to the back of the wagon and it served to keep the cook’s things in order.  The box had a hinged lid, and when the cook (nicknamed “cookie”) shut it, he would have a perfect surface to fix meals on.  A water barrel holding a two days’ water supply was also attached to the wagon alongside a row of hooks, boxes, brackets, and a coffee grinder.  Goodnight also hung hammock-style canvas under the wagon to carry wood and kindling, which was scarce on the prairies.  An additional wagon box was used to carry the cowboys’ bedrolls, personal items, and food supplies.  Goodnight’s genius invention is used in cattle drives to this day. By 1880, Studebaker had created a model called the “Round – Up” wagon.

The chuckwagon was equipped with all kinds of supplies needed along the trail.  We typically think of a chuckwagon being used for food and cooking gear, but the supplies would also include ferrier and blacksmith tools for horseshoeing or making repairs to the wagon and horse tack. Sewing needles for mending clothing or saddles, first aid and alcohol tonics used for medicinal purposes. Bedrolls and rain slickers for the drovers. One side was equipped with a large wooden barrel to carry a two day supply of water. The other side often had a tool box, as well a smaller attached wooden box in front called the jockey box. Additionally, the wagon would have a canvas cover called a bonnet that had been treated in linseed oil to repel rain keeping items in the wagon dry. To allow headroom in the wagon, bows where added raising the canvas and providing securing points.

Now you know why I figured the chuckwagon was named for Chuck Goodnight, although I have to admit I’ve heard him called “The Colonel”, Charles, and Charlie, but never Chuck.

To my surprise, the name chuckwagon wasn’t derived from Goodnight’s given name, but came from 17th Century England as meat merchants who referred to their lower priced goods as “Chuck”. By the 18th Century, the term "chuck" was communicated towards good hearty food. It is of no wonder to take the name chuck for Goodnight’s simple creativity that revolutionized the cattle industry. I’m presuming here but figure that’s where a Chuck Roast and Ground Chuck got its name.

I'd love to hear about any custom or tradition that ended up not being exactly what you'd presumed to be true or told as the truth all of your life.


  1. I knew some of this story, but you added to my knowledge. I appreciate that. The more I an learn the happier I am. Thank you.
    As you know, I have been researching early women doctors, and there were far more than anyone suspects. While not as many as the male doctors, I do think we have a misconception about what was happening back then. Doris

  2. Really wonderful post, Phyllis. Thanks for sharing such great info!

  3. Hello Phyllis. This is a great post, and so interesting. It's fascinating to hear about all the things these men had to carry with them.Mr Goodnight was a very resourceful man! Thank you for this!

  4. Phyliss, great post! I never knew about the calf wagon! So cool! The Colonel sure had some very innovative ideas, didn't he? But I guess he had a lot of time to think about them since he started out so young! Great post, girl--I loved it!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post. I learned a lot and I thank you for that. It has certainly helped on my research for a book I'm plotting that has a cattle drive in it.

  6. Your post was full of little factoids I didn't know about cattle drives and the men who were a part of it. Amazing research, Phyllis.