How a rebuilt chuck wagon is a tip of the hat to the cowboy lifestyle.
Al Moulaison isn’t an actual cowboy, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him and the chuck wagon he’s leaning against. Moulaison, though, says he is something of a cowpoke “in spirit.”
His love of the cowboy lifestyle started when he was in grade school, when he watched old Western movies and began wearing his trademark denim, boots and cowboy hat. “Now,” he confidently chuckles, “here I am, 53 years old, and I’m sitting wearing the same thing. Still dreaming of that cowboy way of life.”
Today, Moulaison lives in Bracebridge, Ontario—a predominantly vacation community about two hours north of Toronto—on 40 acres and operates a variety of businesses with his wife, Wendie. Among them is Flying Star Antiques, a store where that chuck wagon serves as a sort of centerpiece. Like cowboy culture, Moulaison says he loves the history of the wagon and how it was a centerpiece of another sort during the cattle drives back in the day.
Having had a knack for making things with his hands since he was a kid, Moulaison built everything on the wagon except for the undercarriage, which is a Massey-Harris model from around 1890. While constructing the rest of the wagon, Moulaison says it gave him all the more respect for how cowboys of the era lived—how hard the work was, and how long the drives were across open landscape. “I’d loved to have lived in those days,” he says, then chuckles again. “Probably not really when you get down to it, but it is a romantic sort of notion.”
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Mind Your Manners: Chuck Wagon Etiquette
Since hearty food was known as “chuck,” portable kitchens on cattle drives became the chuck box and the wagon, the chuck wagon. The cook transformed staples such as flour, sugar, salt, pinto beans, dried fruit, onions, potatoes, lard and vinegar into stick-to-your-ribs cowboy grub. Castor oil, calamine, bandages, needles and thread for mending men and animals—even a bottle of whiskey for medicinal purposes—had a dedicated drawer.
The cook, usually an older retired cowboy, ruled his campsite with an iron fist. Even the boss stepped lightly around the cranky, sleep deprived cook. “Cookie” got up around 3:00 a.m. to build a fire and prepare a typical breakfast of sour dough biscuits, fried steak, dried fruit and strong coffee. Then he’d break camp, drive ahead of the herd to set up and cook the next meal.
Noon and evening meals included buffalo or roast beef, boiled spuds, beans, gravy, biscuits and coffee. Occasionally, cowboys enjoyed desserts of stewed dried fruit, sweetened rice with raisins or pie decorated with the outfit’s brand.
Acting as barber, banker, doctor,and mediator, the cook also introduced cowboys to camp etiquette. These rules, based on common sense, included the following, so study up before your next drive.
• Riders always approached the campsite downwind to keep dust out of food.
• Cowboys never tied a horse to the chuck wagon or hobbled it too close to camp to keep dust, flies and animal waste away from food.
• When the cook yelled, “Chuck away, come and get it!” the meal was ready, and anyone wanting to eat best not wait.
• Cowboys weren’t to gather around the cook’s campfire—“Cookie” needed working room.
• The cook did not allow any roughhousing that kicked up dirt and sand during meal prep, serving or eating. Iron skillets could end a fight in one swing.
• No one took the last piece of food unless he was sure the rest of the boys were finished eating.
• When a man got up during the meal to refill his coffee cup, he filled all cups held out to him.
• After eating, cowboys scraped their plates and put them in the “wreck pan” to be washed.
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