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The Chuck Wagon
How much chuck can a chuck wagon chuck, if a chuck wagon could chuck chuck? The answer to this question has ‘eaten’ at man since the days of the old west. Most give credit to Charles Goodnight, and others say the chuck wagon got it’s start during the Civil War. I tend to lean toward the latter.

When the first cattle drive was organized in the late 1860’s, a common farm wagon was fitted with a large wooden box that was designed to serve as the cook’s mobile kitchen, pantry and storage. The difference between a ‘covered wagon’ and a ‘chuck wagon’ is the chuck box. From the earliest of time, any wagon could have, and usually was, fitted with wooden bows and a canvas cover. As time past and more cattle were being driven, pushed, poked and otherwise moo-o-o-ved north, the chuck wagon was refined. This is how it became what we think of and see today. Chuck wagons are still in use on ranches and for recreation.

The canvas covered farm, military and Conestoga wagon wheels wore their tracks across our vast new land. Just a word to clarify the term ‘Conestoga. A true Conestoga wagon was a large, almost ship-like, wagon that was swept up on the ends and had over-sized box and wheels to aid in the transport of goods and people. They were so large that when loaded, it would take four, six or even eight horses or oxen to pull them. They were the semi-trucks of their day. In comparison the farm wagon, even with it’s reach extended, was only the equivalent of the 3/4 or 1 ton pickup truck.

History bears out that most all wagons that moved across the country were in fact, farm type wagons. From colonial times and the westward expansion over the Appalachian’s in the 1700’s, the movement westward in the 1870’s, and all times in-between, farm wagons were very common and much cheaper for the average person to buy than the Conestoga.

Since I was in my teens, I have been interested in history and historical reenacting. Over the years I have learned a few important things, namely, that the stipulations ‘they did’ or ‘never did’ this or that, usually show a lack of practical knowledge about the subject in question. Although I am not anyone’s authority, I do feel confident in sharing this bit of information about wagons, “There is no one way to do anything.” I know that sounds so simple but it carries a lot of weight. Whether it’s covering a wagon or building a chuck box, people used what materials and tools that were available to them. This makes uniquely different finished products, so keep this in mind when you design your wagon.

Your wagon may be one, two, or three board in height, I recommend two boards. This gives more storage inside and more support for the cook box without becoming a ‘high profile vehicle’ hazard when it’s windy. If you have wanted to put a cover on your wagon, and/or make a chuck wagon, allow me to share how I did mine.

Wagon Bows

Wagon bows are made from ash, hickory or white oak strips 3/8 x 2 1/2 x 12’ long. They are steam bent into one of two shapes, the ‘U’ or the ‘Conestoga. (See diagram.) The ‘U’ shape is what I have used. Wood bows can cost from $75.00 to $125.00 per set of five. Steel bows cost around $35.00 per set. On my last wagon I made the bows of 3/16 x 2”x12’ steel to replace the wooden one I had that were destroyed. Wood bow are my first choice, but given my cash flow at the time, steel bows fit into my budget as replacements.

You can make your own wooden bows. Start out by going to the lumber yard and pick through the 4x4x12 fir lumber for the straightest grained piece they have. Just like selecting wood for wagon tongue, straight and knot free is critical when bending the bows.

Lay out where the cuts will be made. Two sides of the 4x4 will be where the grain runs the straightest. Cut the wood so that the thinnest dimension of the bow runs with the straight grain. (See diagram.) The 4x4 x12’ will be cut into slabs that will finish at 2 ¼” wide by 3/8” to ½” thick by 12’ long. When the bows are cut, sand them if you like, and then loosely bundle the five or six best ones together and place them in a creek or pond for 24 hours or so. When the slabs are thoroughly soaked, stack three together and center them under the front wheel of a buggy or wagon, and slowly bring the ends upwards. Here’s a helpful hint, tie a cord to one end of the three slab stack and loop the rope around the opposite end. As you draw the ends together, keep taking up the slack. This will help keep the wood bending evenly around the wheel. When the ends are about 30” apart, tie them with the cord so that the bows can’t spring back out straight.

Allow the bows to dry for a day or two on the wheel before untying them. Once the wood is dry, the bows will hold their shape. I suggest that you keep the ends tied when in storage or until they are mounted to the wagon. Wagon bows are spaced equally on the wagon. The front bow is made to be easily removed so when driving in nice weather, this bow can be eliminated and stored in the wagon so the driver can sit in the open.

Whether wood or steel, bows are fastened to the box by bolting them with 1/4” carriage bolts or using bow clips (see diagram). Bow clips are steel brackets that are riveted, screwed or bolted to the wagon box. The bow ends are then slid into the brackets and tighten down.

Once the bows are mounted, you are ready for the cover. Covers can be bought or if you want to save money, you can construct your own. If you chose to buy the sheet ready made, plan to pay about $125.00 to $175.00 or so. If you make you own sheet, the materials will cost about $60.00 or less.

The cover or ‘wagon sheet’ is a rectangle of 10 ounce canvas that has light rope sewn into the ends and grommets put into the edges. I used a 12’x15’ tight weave painters drop cloth for mine. Keep in mind that the size of the sheet depends on the length of the wagon box and the height of the bows. If there is a formula for figuring the length of the canvas, I’m not aware of it. What I suggest is to sew the front of the wagon sheet and fit it into place on the front bows. Place the length of the canvas over the bows, gather the back canvas and cut to fit. Do take care not to cut it too short, always error to the large side. Like the man said “I cut it three times and it’s still too short!”

The ropes sewn on the short sides of the sheet is easily done by folding the canvas back about 2” with the 3/8” rope laying in the fold. Sew the canvas together so that the rope can slide back and forth easily. When the sheet is in place, the ropes can be pulled together like the drawstrings on a sweatshirt hood, to close up the end of the wagon.

Grommets are placed along the long sides about every 16”-20”. Be sure to double up the canvas or otherwise reinforce the fabric so it won’t tear. Also be careful not to cut the holes for the grommets too large. Cut them just slightly small so when the neck of the grommet is pushed into place, it fits snug. This ensures the fabric won’t fray. Grommets can be bought at most fabric stores. A light rope is laced through these holes and hooked onto hooks fastened to the side boards.

You may consider adding a ‘fly’ to the back of the wagon. A ‘fly’ is an awning that fastens to the back of the food box or bows, and spreads out and is supported by poles. (See diagram) there is no real pattern, but I learned that it is wise to keep the cook as happy and comfortable as possible. If she wants a fly over her work area, . . . by God give it to her!

The Chuck Box

The chuck box or cook box, is as simple or as elaborate as you care to make it. Remember that there is no one way to build your box, mine had 4 shelves and 2 large drawers. As I describe mine, allow that yours will vary When planning the cook box, try to figure the space needed to house the items that will be kept within. This would include canned goods, plates, flatware, any pots, pans and bowls, etc. Traditionally there was a drawer used to keep the miscellaneous items that would be needed such as sewing supplies, medical items, straight razor and soap, toiletries and medicinal alcohol (winky-wink). Bulk items like potatoes, vegetables, etc. were kept in the wagon behind the cook box.

Now for the box itself. See the diagram to get the dimensions I used for mine. Construction is very straight forward. Traditionally 1x6 or 8 pine would be used to make the box itself. In keeping with the ingenuity of our forefathers, I used a sheet of 4x8x1/2” external siding left over from a job. Construction site dumpsters are a very good place to pick up material needed. Measure the inside of the wagon box from cleat strip to cleat strip, if you intend to leave them in. The cook box should just fit the inside of the wagon box without a lot of play. There may be a time when on the trail, the box will be removed, so don’t make it too tight a fit.

The chuck box is built so that the front slants inwards from bottom to top. This is so the lid will not interfere with the wagon rod that is installed to keep the side boards from being pushed outward during travel. It also aids in keeping the door closed, as the lid rests on the box. While on the subject of the cook box lid, remember that there is a 1x4 hinged leg in the middle of the door that drops down when the door is lowered into it’s ‘table mode’. It is a good idea to cover the work surface with a tin sheeting to make it easy to clean and a more sanitary food preparation area. Be sure to let the top of the box overlap all four sides forming a lip. When it rains, the lip helps keep water out of the box.

Divide the cook box into sections with shelves. The drawers on many old chuck boxes were no more than 1x8 boards nailed into a simple box with a knob or leather strap handle added. Making drawer “tracks” is not necessary, the drawers will slide into the shelves. The shelves should have a lip added to the front edge to keep items from sliding out.

When the cook box is complete, it would be a good ideas to paint the inside white to give a clean, fresh look to it. Adding a set of wood, metal or rope handles to the outside of the box can come in handy. Rope handles work best as they are soft and flexible.

Water Barrel

The wagon now has it’s bows, cover and cook box, and needs only a water barrel. Finding a good water barrel can be the hardest part of the job. To buy one is expensive and the large oak barrels will tip the wagon. I was lucky enough to have a friend that had a 15 gallon size shipping barrel in his shed. It originally didn’t hold water very well, but when I added two large trash bags as liners, it held water for a 100 mile road trip.

The water barrel sets on the step platform on either the right or left side of the wagon. I strongly encourage you to reinforce and enlarge the barrel platform by bolting two stout 2x4’s to the underside of the box. Run the 2x4’s from one side of the box, out the other side where the barrel will sit. Then screw or nail 1x4’s to make the platform. When bolting the supports to the underside of the wagon box, use three bolts per support with washers top and bottom.

I wouldn’t use a water barrel over 15 to 20 gallons because it could over stress the wagon. 15-20 gallons is usually a two day supply of water. Remember that water weighs about 8 lb. per gallon. On my wagon, I offset the water barrel by putting my large tool box on the other side of the wagon. In it were all the heaviest items.

Handy Tools & General Advice for a Wagon Trip

Let me throw in a few words of what might be taken along on a wagon in the way of tools. If you are planning to go on a long trip, I suggest the following: Wagon wheel wrench, adjustable wrenches, hammer, draw knife, wood chisel, grease, rags, used hoof rasp, shovel, ax, good file for sharpening. Picket pins, shoeing tools, leather and leather repair tools, 100 ‘ of 3/4” rope, cordage, and a good bow saw. All these items fit into the large tool box on the side, except the grease pail that rides under the wagon.

The following general ideas may also be of some use to you for your trip:
1. Wagon wheels, “hubs and boxing type”, need only be greased every 20 miles or so. Some could argue that even more miles could be put on the wagon before re-greasing, especially with the modern lubricants available today. But I like to remember what my Dad said to us boys as we were growing up on the farm in Indiana, “Grease is cheaper than parts.” Besides, I like doing maintenance on my wagon every 20 miles or so!
2. Take along a good supply of nuts, bolts and washers of varied sizes. I make a point to go over the whole wagon to check all nuts periodically to ensure that nothing comes apart when you least expect it.
3. Sometimes a small wagon or two wheeled cart is pulled behind the main wagon to carry all the extra ‘stuff’.
4. A boot can be added to the bottom of the wagon box to carry the heavy iron cooking gear. The boot is another wooden box that attaches to the bottom of the wagon box behind the rear axle. Build the boot stoutly as it will get much abuse.
5. If you take kerosene lanterns, carry the kerosene can suspended under the wagon with the grease bucket. Trust me on this one!
6. Cattle guards can be an obstacle if you don’t have the secret to crossing them. At every cattle guard there should be a pass gate to the side. Pull the team up to the guard and pull the evener pin, and walk the team off the tongue and through the pass gate. Back the team, (now on the opposite side of the cattle guard from the wagon), to the guard. Stretch a stout rope across the guard from the team to the wagon evener pin. With a hondo tied into the wagon end of the rope, put the evener pin through the loop, and put a half hitch around the tongue’s end, and the other rope end through the evener behind the team. The half hitch will lift the tongue up as the team pulls the rope and the wagon is drawn forward. Continue walking the team forward until the wagon is across the guard. After two or three times, crossing cattle guards will take only minutes.

Whether or not you go the route of making a chuck box, if you have a good wagon, I feel you should put bows and a cover on it. To me, there is something wonderful about rumbling along with the cover up. Not to mention having the bows and cover adds to the value of the wagon.

I hope this article answers some questions and give you some ideas. The next subject I’ll be writing about will be brakes. How they work and how to go about putting them on your wagon.

Until then, hook up the team . . . . and I’ll see you on the road!

Paul L. Muller


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